‘Sound & Fury’ Review: Sturgill Simpson Came, Saw, Conquered, and Had Enough
There’s a certain formula and corresponding lifestyle to being a music superstar in certain musical genres. Some badass posturing, fit to gritty music with catchy choruses, leads to glitz and glamour, hordes of adoring fans, shiny trophies, and all the rest. Then, promptly, comes compromise of ideals, adulteration of style and taste, sacrifice of life priorities, mindless slavish repetition, and a general life of institutionalized, commercial drudgery. One has to wonder where all the rebellion that created the initial allure went. It seems to generally dissipate upon the very sight of success, time and time again, like clockwork. Yet, no recording artist ever calls it out — except for the select few. And as a case in point, we have Sturgill Simpson. With a Grammy win to his name, Simpson has properly made a name for himself representing the edgier side of country music. His breakthrough album, “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,” couldn’t be better titled. He approaches music with a respectful acknowledgement of country signifiers, but with a bold disregard for the parameters generally subscribed to the genre. But is that even enough?
When Simpson’s last album “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” a record largely concerned with the strains of the lifestyle on the duties of fatherhood, won a Grammy Best Country Album, Simpson found himself posed with a series of life-defining questions. With salivating sycophants in every direction nudging him on, to pitch him as the next Outlaw Country icon, the rather arbitrary pigeonholing of him as a “country” artist when his music covers so much more ground, and the tradeoff between a proper family life and a phony cheerleading type of touring circus, Simpson had a good look, and took a sharp turn. His new album “Sound & Fury“ comes with an anime film accompaniment , releaseed on Netflix, and both tackle the hugely relevant and shamelessly unexplored subject of the struggle between accepted, yet oppressive systems and the individuals that resist their oppression. The anime film is a project that has its roots in Simpson’s Navy experience, which brought him to Japan for a year. Having especially taken to the aesthetic, he’s gone to working with such names as Mizusaki Takashi Okazaki, creator of “Afro Samurai,” and Koji Morimoto, an animator of “Akira.” As for the music, it’s a wild ride, full of indulgent guitar solos, forays into electronica, and the distinctive voice that defines it all. Even Simpson’s last album was considered country by default, for no real ostensible reason than that it was unabashedly Southern. True to form, the new album is about as Southern as can be, but it would take a special imagination to reasonably describe it as country music. There’s distortion, synth pop, crafty audio manipulation, and plenty of twang. It’s the music that Sturgill Simpson wants to make — take it or leave it.
The opener “Ronin” starts off with offhand, casual noise, setting the stage for an album that throws caution to the wind. What follows is a blues freakout, best appreciated by the most enthusiastic guitar fanboys. The first full song, conventionally speaking, is “Remember to Breathe.” It starts off like the note consistent with the whole album and the particular song’s title, with a decidedly hard rock feel, and Simpson sounding blissed out and sun-kissed,playing rock ‘n’ roll unhinged and sprawling. “Remember to Breathe” echoes the South Park Peruvian flute band, then hits home with that twang, throws in guitar blasts, with Simpson sounding animated, even ravey, morphing sounds into interesting textures, and taking up a gospel houl. The next song is single “Sing Along,” which comes with a video that’s truly out of this world, capturing a type of dystopian future in anime. The mutating sounds approach the likes of Aphex Twin, and the whole song is a riot, with Simpson’ voice taking especial command.
“A Good Look” comes in with guitar licks that scream of homeland cred, and immediately set down a festive, jamboree vibe. There’s another blues freakout, reprising the opening track, and it all eventually gets funky, wah-wah pedals and all. The electronic aspect stands out on this track, with Simpson’s particular type of fusion striking as a new take on divided worlds. Next comes “Make Art, Not Friends,” a song with a title that precedes itself. The song begins with plenty of filigree and glossy sheen, and comes to a sudden shift, approaching Alan Holdsworth-esque stylings. It’s a particularly effective demonstration of an attribute so central to Simpson’s appeal: a condemnable disregard for standards of taste, that translates to an uncommon adventurousness in sound and spirit, He strikes a rare balance between country song and free jam, with a chorus that pops, and overall, some fine songsmithing.
If the last song’s title weren’t enough to scratch heads, we have “Best Clockmaker on Mars.” What a title. This is a song that condenses and compresses all of the elements in Simpson’s music that are equally relatable and alienating, in that they flaunt a silliness that’s hard not to receive with a dose of irony. It’s Simpson blasting away, with the blues guitar and the Peruvian flute, unhinged and unworried. After this riot of a jam, Simpson sharply shifts gears, getting slow and reflective on “All Said and Done.” The lyrics and the presentation match the title, an afterthought on life in general, expressed with Simpson’s particular quirk.
“Last Man Standing” has the feeling of a punk rock stomp, with a full-blast backbeat and a melody that’s defiantly catchy. Then, we have “Mercury in Retrograde,” in which Simpson sings about encountering people day to day, and ending up so baffled that he finds himself forced to seek planetary explanations. The chorus lines of “Mercury Is In Retrograde / At least it’s not just hanging around, pretending to be my friend,” are priceless, a perfect example of the type of often overlooked brilliance that makes its way into Simpson’s music. Finally, the closer, “Fastest Horse in Town,” ends things on a note that solidifies the whole experience, with the blues indulgences, the inquisitive lyrics, altogether an effective summation.
Surgill Simpson has outdone himself with this album. All of the varied musical instincts that have flavored his music in the past come now more pronounced. The songs cover a breadth of topics, in a voice that’s able to deliver them convincingly. It will be a thoroughly satisfying experience for any fan of Simpson, as it highlights and amplifies all his strong points. “Sound & Fury” is easily the most definitive and impressive album in Simpson’s catalogue. It doesn’t stray from the styles of his other albums in a way that would alienate fans, as all the songs bear his distinctive voice and instinct, but it takes the aesthetic and attitude to a new level, and concentrates them on a sharp and decisive stance. This is an album about standing your ground, refusing to conform, and laughing in the face of convention. The video for “Sing Along,” has enough wild, visionary, intricate detail crammed in it to draw any viewer to the accompanying film. Altogether, it’s an album and a film with plenty of merit and personality, and no shortage of attitude and principle. Simpson tackles a variety of topics, and presents them with an unhinged showcasing of musical instincts. Sure, Simpson is a hailing figure in country music, and this album hardly even registers as country music, but not because it doesn’t meet the standards, because it exceeds them. It’s an album for the making.
“Sound & Fury” is available Sept. 27 on Apple Music.