Sturgill Simpson emerged as a critical darling in 2013 with the wonderful High Top Mountain, a purely country throwback that suited Simpson to a tee. In 2014, he released the astonishing Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, a mixture of psychedelic rock, traditional country and a whole mish-mash of other sounds that somehow came together and worked to construct a brilliant album. This year, Simpson is back with what is his best album to-date in A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. The album, which Simpson warned us would not be a strictly country one, isn’t the outlaw gold that his debut was, nor is it the creative mastermind that his sophomore was, but it takes the best elements of both, and combines them to create his most cohesive, and most personal project yet.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was apparently recorded with the birth of Simpson’s son in mind. It serves as almost a guide of sorts, with messages ranging from live life to the fullest (“Brace For Impact (Live a Little)”), to the straightforward message of morality with “Keep It Between the Lines.” It’s a new look for Simpson, and one that fits him well. The personal tinge is one that finds its way across the entire album, even going as far as touching on Simpson’s personal experiences with the navy in “Sea Stories.” At nine songs, Sailor is a short album, but is no doubt one of a tremendously high quality.
Heading into the album, we were warned that it would be a departure from the traditional country sound we had come to expect from Simpson, and yet the majority of the tracks featured are solidly within the realms of what can be considered country music. Yes, the soul influence is there. Yes, the rock influence is certainly there. But the core of this project is unquestionably country, and that is particularly evident on the album’s slower moments.
While Simpson declared his mastery of the uptempos on his past two albums, with standout moments such as “Life Ain’t Fair and the World Is Mean,” it’s the low-key moments that really help A Sailor’s Guide to Earth shine. The beautiful “Breakers Roar” is the project’s shining star, as it plays to Sturgill’s strengths as a vocalist, while also representing the epitome of a killer country ballad. The touching love number “Oh Sarah” is right up there in terms of quality as well, with an equally beautiful production and a strong lyric depicting life on the road away from his significant other.
While the tracks covering his relationships with others are lovely, and certainly the album-defining moments, the deeply personal touches, namely “Sea Stories,” a record describing his time in the Navy, add another layer of depth and an additional dynamic to the project. While it certainly changes things up in that it’s a personal experience, rather than a message to those close to him, it maintains the theme of playing to Simpson’s strength as a superb storyteller.
Sailor is an album that continues to push Simpson’s boundaries as an artist. He takes a song from an iconic band in Nirvana, and makes it his own with the wonderful “In Bloom.” “Brace for Impact” is as rocking as we’ve seen him yet, and it works, despite not being particularly “country.” Many tracks are full to the brim with horns and other unique sounds, and yet they all play off each other well. The saxophone and steel guitar are both signature elements of this album, and guess what? It works. It pushes the borders of country music in a different way than Metamodern did, but the results are just as good, if not better. Simpson is an artist, and never has that been more evident than on this project.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is an album that beautifully blends the line between cohesive and diverse. It mixes anthemic qualities with intricate storylines. It’s deeply personal, and yet is still something that many can relate to. It’s country, it’s soul, and it’s rock. Most of all, it is art, and is the best thing put out so far in 2016. Sturgill Simpson hasn’t given us a purely country album, but he’s given us something better: a musical masterpiece. Who knows where the 37-year-old Kentucky native will go next, but for now, let’s just appreciate the brilliance of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.
Top Tracks: “Breakers Roar,” “Oh Sarah,” “In Bloom”