Sturgill Simpson: Sound & Fury review – country's outlaw catches fire

(Elektra Records)
Another big shift in direction for Simpson, with anime visuals, glam rock, disco and grunge ornamenting never-more-country lyrics: it’s extraordinary

It seems almost beside the point to note that Sturgill Simpson’s fourth album sounds nothing like its predecessors, as his previous three albums didn’t sound much like each other either. His self-funded 2013 debut, High Top Mountain, suggested the arrival of an arch-traditionalist, a former serviceman and railroad worker, whose vision of country music was rooted in that of artists who balked at Nashville’s tendency to slather everything in a coat of gloss: a defiantly retro reanimation of the late 70s “outlaw country” of Waylon Jennings or Hank Williams Jr. But its successor, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, was a kind of psychedelic opus, sprinkled with paeans to LSD and DMT – “woke up this morning and decided to kill my ego … gonna break on through and blast off to the Bardo,” opened Just Let Go – frequently set to music that matched: Mellotron and wah-wah guitars, vocals drenched in spaced-out echo.

Sturgill Simpson: Sound & Fury album art work
Sturgill Simpson: Sound & Fury album art work Photograph: PR

2016’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, meanwhile, was a heavily orchestrated concept album that bore the influence of 60s southern soul and featured a cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom, recast as a small-hours ballad, heavy on the weeping pedal-steel. It won best country album at the Grammys, and was nominated for album of the year outright. Cementing his reputation as something of a refusenik, Simpson threatened that if he won, he would simply hand the award to Beyoncé and walk out.

Notice has clearly been served that whatever you think the 41-year-old Simpson is, that’s what he’s not, but even so, Sound & Fury is a bold and dramatic left turn: a self-styled “sleazy synth-rock dance record”, that Simpson has claimed is inspired not merely by T Rex, but, of all people, La Roux.

Given Simpson’s previously noted unbiddable nature – and indeed Sound & Fury’s preponderance of lyrics that wrestle unhappily with the fame occasioned by A Sailor’s Guide to Earth’s success and with the machinations of the music industry, or as Mercury in Retrograde puts it, “hypocrites building brands” – you do wonder if announcing that his new album is influenced by a foppish glam idol who made virtually no commercial impact in the US and an androgynous British synthpop revivalist doesn’t come with a gleeful side-order of screw-you to the country establishment. Whatever the reason, he’s not kidding, as evidenced by single Sing Along: a wall of crunching glam guitars and fizzing analogue synths, underpinned by a frantic four-to-the-floor disco beat, with a vague hint of the drum machine-driven fuzz found on ZZ Top’s Eliminator stirred into the mix.

And if Simpson is as discomfited by success and critical praise as Mercury in Retrograde suggests – journalists and people asking what his songs mean seem to rank only slightly higher in his estimation than hypocrites building brands – then unfortunately, he’s going to have to suck it up for a little while longer. Sing Along, like the rest of Sound & Fury, is awesome: powerful, fierce, irresistible.

Apparently recorded while films by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa played silently in the studio, the album is the soundtrack to its own film, an anime loosely based on Kurosawa’s samurai epic Yojimbo. Without wishing to cause despair to whoever ponied up the film’s $1.2m, Sound & Fury is better heard stripped of its visual accompaniment. Without it, the album’s structure becomes thrillingly inexplicable and unpredictable: its songs frequently don’t end, or at least reach any kind of identifiable conclusion. They just crash into the next track as if someone’s frantically switching channels on a TV, or suddenly fade out, replaced by bursts of feedback and electronic noise or burbling synthesiser arpeggios.

Before that happens, the songs have already done enough to get their hooks in you. Every track, from the agitated faux-rockabilly of Last Man Standing to the fabulous combination of distinctly Bolan-esque boogie and world-weary tune offered up on Make Art Not Friends, to All Said and Done, a wracked ballad that crackles and hisses with distortion, is an object lesson in musical economy. In contrast to the complexity of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, they offer beautifully simple, direct melodies and indelible riffs buoyed by the needles-in-the-red intensity of the production and by the way Simpson’s frequently down-home lyrics – “Tell ’em to carve my name on that bar stool, baby, / I’m gonna be here a while” – rub against the wilfully synthetic but visceral nature of the sound.

It climaxes with Fastest Horse in Town, a psychedelicised take on old-fashioned, pre-Nevermind grunge: dense, corrosive guitars howling and arcing around Simpson’s voice, the latter rendered incomprehensible with reverb and electronic effects. It’s a hugely exciting end to a hugely exciting album that underlines Simpson’s status as a daring, restless and unique artist. He isn’t the first musician to throw his label a curveball while protesting about the pressures of fame and the grim nature of the music business. That said, it’s hard to think of anyone else who’s done it by making an album as gripping and enjoyable as this.

This week Alexis listened to

Holodrum: No Dither
Straight out of Halifax: fidgety, sax and synth-driven punk-disco that takes on an increasingly psychedelic sheen as it progresses.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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