Josh Hurst

Month: April, 2016

SEA CHANGE

Or: Why Would Sturgill Simpson lie to you?

seastories

For a shorter take on this one, you might start with my Flood Magazine review.


Every first-time father will find resonance and meaning in the stark, unadorned confession that begins Sturgill Simpson’s third album: “Hello my son/ Welcome to Earth/ You may not be my last/ But you’ll always be my first/ Wish I’d done this ten years ago/ But how could I know–/ That the answer was so easy.” Answers don’t often come easy, in life or on this album, but as you cradle new life in your arms for the first time, your capacity to love unfolding and compounding in real time, it seems in that instance like everything you’ve ever needed is right there in front of you. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is an album about that moment of clarity—an album about first things, important things; things worth passing down; things you’d want remembered. But it’s also an album about everything that comes next—everything that floods into your mind once those gates of clarity have opened: The panic. The doubt. The guilt. The fear. And yes, always—deep and abiding love. The kind that changes a man, and he stays changed.

That opening song is called “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” and its first half is presented as a countrypolitan lullaby: A piano twinkles like a mobile above a crib; Simpson’s language is stark, close to the bone. He carries with him lessons learned from Waylon Jennings (that a real man can be tough and emotional at the same time) and Merle Haggard (that the simplicity of craft can be a perfect conduit for complex human connection). The song settles onto a moment of euphoria, holds it in the air for just one moment—and then it just breaks: The song lurches into brass band funk as the new dad’s paternity leave comes to an end: “And if sometimes daddy has to go away/ Please don’t think it means I don’t love you/ Oh, how I wish I could be there everyday/ And holding you is the greatest love I’ve ever know.” He says it simply and directly because there’s no other way to say it; the song moves from the hospital cradle to the rush of pain and loss that every working dad knows, most of all the ones well-aquatinted with airport terminals and the back of a tour bus. It’s a song about the tragedy of distance.

It’s also a roadmap of everything else that comes on A Sailor’s Guide, a song cycle that’s presented as a seamless suite of music—think What’s Going On or Parade—and ebbs and flows with raw emotion. Simpson designed the record as an open letter to his young son, born in the aftermath of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music rewriting the rules of alternative country and turning Simpson into one of its premier ambassadors—but he also cannily lends the record a broader conceptual framework: It’s a collection of sea stories, smoke signals, messages in bottles; transmissions from a seaman who longs for shore but knows that his labors lie in the squall and the storm. Simpson produced the record himself and gives it a dark, thick, murky sound, complete with nautical sound effects, lighthouse bells, pounding waves, and bits of sea shanty. The artist—who recently told The New York Times that he listens to Stax-era Elvis more than he ever did Waylon Jennings—broadens his outlaw country motifs to present a more cosmic version of American music, as saturated in soul and funk as in cowboy anthems and campfire songs. This is bold music, and a change-up from Metamodern: The Dap-Kings are brought in to provide the punchy grooves and the firepower, but also oceanic sound effects; pedal steel is all over the place, rain soaking the grain of these hearty songs. As strange as the comparison may sound, A Sailor’s Guide really does warrant a mention of Ween’s classic The Mollusk, as both albums maintain a watery undertow throughout their run-times.

sturgill

Simpson was a Navy man himself at one time, and he makes the conceit ring true. What gives the record its heart is that it’s not an album about fathers and sons; it’s an album about Sturgill Simpson and his son, the concrete particulars grounding and expanding the universal themes.  His “Sea Stories” “might seem a little far-fetched,” he acknowledges at one point—“But why would I lie to you?” That song is a travelogue etched with experience; it’s weathered, beautiful, and broken. Simpson’s howl and his acoustic guitar strumming put the song somewhere in the realm of country rock even as an organ tilts the compass toward Muscle Shoals. “Basic was just like papaw said,” he says—a great opening line—and from there the song packs as much local color, myth-making, and hell-raising as possible into a compact three minutes—boxing Cobras, angels playing Connect Four, and a litany of Southeast Asian port towns rattled off in Simpson’s thick Kentucky drawl. His salty seadog reflections include getting high in his cabin and playing GoldenEye 007 on the Nintendo 64, but that’s where things fall apart: What he remembers next is getting drummed out of the military and drifting from couch to couch as he tries to piece his civilian life together. The experience is shattering, disillusioning in the best way; more than anything, he’s glad to be free from the military-industrial bullshit machine: “But flying high beats dying for lies/ In a politician’s war.”

At times it sounds like Simpson’s desperate to shield his secret heart and his fatherly affections from the roar and the madness of the world outside—but he can’t always keep the outside from pouring in. The politician’s wars come roaring back on the record’s final song, an absolutely bonkers closing number dubbed “Call to Arms.” If the first song was a lullaby, the closing song is a screed; the countrypolitan piano is replaced by the frantic grooves of the Dap-Kings, Simpson’s campfire poetry replaced with the spitfire lyrics and mad imagery of a young Bob Dylan making his way down Highway 61. This, inevitably, is where the father’s mind turns: From wonder at the life you’ve brought into this life to terror at the state of things. “This old world’s too fucked-up for any first-born son,” Over the Rhine sang on their Ohio album, and here Simpson lists some of the reasons why: “Wearing that Kim Jong-il hat while your grandma’s selling pills stat/ Meanwhile I’m wearing my ‘can’t pay the fucking bills’ hat.” (See also: “Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine…”)  It’s a blur of indignation and rage, encompassing everything from drone wars to the ubiquity of cell phones; it’s too funny to be a tragedy, too brutal to be anything else. And at the end he howls like a madman, leading the final sing-along of the damned: “The bullshit’s got to go!” And that’s where any responsible album about fatherhood has to end: Punching out the darkness, kicking against the pricks.

The mania and furor of these songs is contextualized by the moments of tenderness. “Breakers Roar” is a whisper stolen from a quiet moment at sea: It’s a song about loneliness, drowning in dreams. “Oh Sarah” is a love letter, this one to his Simpson’s bride: It’s an apology for his vagabond ways and a promise to always come home; a love song for a union borne of fracture and strained by a very masculine malaise: “So forgive me if sometimes I seem a little crazy/ But god damn, sometimes crazy’s how I feel.” Simpson casts himself as the one who runs away, his Beloved as the one who holds things together.

And when he opens up his secret heart like that, he proves the point he’s trying to make. If A Sailor’s Guide is the blueprint for life that he’s trying to leave for his young son, Rule #1 is outlined in the opening song: “I’ve been told you measure a man by how much he loves.” That line is recalled when Sturgill offers a grim, merciful reflection on a man who “likes to shoot his gun/ But he don’t know what it means to love someone.” That song, of course, is Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” played here as a soul ballad that builds to a roar and ends the record’s first half in a moment of wild catharsis, also summarizing so much of what makes A Sailor’s Guide special. That the album’s lone cover is a grunge song suggests much about Sturgill’s expansive, inclusive continuum of American song; that it contrasts the dilapidated masculinity of violence with the true manliness of loving and being loved is a flourish of almost unbearable poignancy on this record about fathers raising sons in a world of war and wonder.

In “Keep Between the Lines,” he sounds hazy and punchdrunk as he tries to stitch together some words for his son to live by; really, what father wouldn’t? The song lurches and struts to a Dap-Kings groove, and the lyric is a litany of fatherly advice—some of it general, much of it charmingly specific, a lot of it fudged a bit. He’s doing the best he can with this one: “Stay in school/ Stay off the hard stuff/ And keep between the lines.” And this one sounds like it ought to be a metaphor, but the great thing is it probably isn’t: “Motor oil is motor oil/ Just keep the engine clean.” The one that he probably hopes to God is true is this one: “Do as I say/ Don’t do as I’ve done/ It don’t have to be/ Like father, like son.” It’s not vanity or false modesty, as any father of a son knows: You try to give him the best of you; try to shield him from the worst of you; hope he knows how much he’s loved—and hope he does it all better than you. That’s the heart of this record—broken and bruised by love, bursting at the seams as it strains for true devotion; sorry and grateful and overjoyed at the same time.


Further resources:

Advertisements

HARDER THEY COME

Or: Margo Price makes something last.

margo

“In this town, everybody’s trying to get a piece of everybody else,” sings Margo Price at the start of her scrappy debut album, which pops and jostles with sucker punches and deft kicks to the shins, an album of classic country confessions that are injected with so much piss and snark that the whole album feels like a knife fight in a telephone booth. Half the time Price belts her song from the top of the scrap heat, queen of the hill surveying the wreckage with her lips in a smirk and a fuck-off on her tongue: “You wouldn’t know class if it bit you in the ass/ and you’re standing much too tall,” she says in dismissing one ex-lover, as pithy as a hip-hop diss track and as snarling as an Elvis Costello song, back when he was cruel. Just as often, though, she’s reeling, holding a bag of peas over a black eye and seeking to fight off despair with self-destruction: “Since you put me down/ I’ve been drinking just to drown,” one character says, groping for comfort in oblivion. But none of the characters on this album are sitting where they thought they’d be sitting this time last year. Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is an album of collapses and comeuppances, lovers pulling the rug out from under one another and clambering to be the last man or woman standing. The world of this record is governed by karma and bleak, cosmic justice—but time is the ultimate arbiter, and nobody here can be sure their own fall from grace isn’t lying in wait just around the corner.

But what reads on paper like a nasty streak is framed as empowerment and redemption throughout the record; and what could sound like victimhood is actually trembling vulnerability at the hands of time’s cruel tricks. Price sounds like a survivor even when she’s singing songs about drinkin’, cheatin’, and jail, which she is throughout the bulk of this record; part of that’s her own steely charisma and part of it’s how deftly she leverages autobiography here. The album’s real-life backstory is a prop in her smoke-and-mirrors act, authenticity a tool to be wielded rather than an idol to be prized: Price herself poured everything into making this album, pawning her own wedding band to pay for the Sun Studios sessions that generated its crisp, lively sound, and she fought for years to get an audience with record executives before Third Man Records finally swooped in to release the thing, unchanged from Price’s original vision. That’s a great story and it frames everything here in the glow of triumph through hard knocks; it underscores that these are songs of experience, their jadedness earned and their guarded humanism bent and battered. But of course, Price wrote and recorded these songs before any of that happened, so the accuracy of these songs is a convenient trick of time that never gets in the way of the stories themselves, of how Price enlivens and emboldens classic country tropes. She grounds conventions in personal detail and restores myth to the land of flesh and blood; that these songs are so carefully rendered from the stuff of country lore doesn’t stop them from kicking shit, flinging dirt, and going down in the blaze of a boozy barroom brawl.

Price’s gift as a record-maker and songwriter is how she bends convention to her will, making an album that doesn’t break the rules but does play the game better than almost any of her peers. These songs of experience are offered up with crackling energy and righteous glee: The sound of the record is immediate, boasting classic honky-tonk instrumentation that neither chases modernity nor fetishizes analog throwbacks. Price and her band spike the upbeat songs with jagged electric guitar solos, adorn the ballads with high-and-lonesome steel guitar, and display casual virtuosity throughout: “Tennessee Song” opens with dissonant drums and muffled singing—call it country grunge—while “Four Years of Chances” employs electric piano in service of straight-ahead R&B. Those are wrinkles that give character and context to the songs that feel more like traditional country, albeit filtered through Price’s feisty singing and songwriting, which moves from frailty to one-upmanship in a dizzying, punch-out blur.

margoprice

Every triumph on this album comes at the expense of another character’s downfall, which means that about half of these narrators are just barely treading water. “Since You Put Me Down” could be a companion song to Ashley Monroe’s “If the Devil Don’t Want Me,” a song about a despair so deep it becomes a kind of self-destruction. It sounds like a classic country confession, but there’s something feisty in how Price assumes agency in her own downfall: “Since you put me down/ I’ve been drinking just to drown/ I’ve been lying through the cracks in my teeth/ I’m been waltzing with my sin/ He’s an ugly evil twin/ He’s a double-crossing, back-stabbing thief.” It’s a song set in the wake of betrayal, but its focus is on the narrator’s effort to rebuild her life by tearing it apart. She vows to haunt her ex-lover without ever saying his name, shifts the focus from his wrongdoing to her own willful vice, and pledges in the end to “land back on the ground.” The song opens with backporch strumming before building into a perfect truck-stop jukebox set piece, right down to the saloon piano, mournful pedal steel, and consolatory fiddle. Price caps her choruses with a pithy ode to self-medication: “I’ve been trying to turn this broken heart to stone.”

“Hurtin’ on the Bottle” is another drinkin’ song, this one a more straight-ahead rabble-rouser. The narrator here’s “been drinking whiskey like it’s water,” and gropes for some kind of dignity in degeneration: “Baby I know we’ve been getting older/ But you’re never too old to learn to crawl.” Price’s narrator finds herself on the opposite side of comeuppance on “About to Find Out,” a song about a slick operator—perhaps a lover, perhaps a record label executive—collapsing into ruin. Price stands by with a smirk on her face and a full quiver of put-downs: “Well I’ve had about enough of your two-cent words/ And the way you’re running your mouth/ No you haven’t got a clue, or another thing to do/ Except to take another picture of yourself.” The final verse finds her reaching for an even sharper scalpel, turning the song from a lover’s jilt to an other-side-of-the-tracks thrash in the vein of “Like a Rolling Stone”: “Some folks today have got nothing to say/ Except to talk about their wealth/ But the poor’s still poor and the war’s still poor/ And everybody wants more for themselves.” She’s written a record that sparkles with brutal humor and plays like an encyclopedia of great country one-liners, and the song shimmies and sashays to pounding piano and drums, graceful steel guitar lines adding salt to the wound.

One character here learns a little too late that “the harder they come, they fall,” though in truth it’s a fitting lesson for any of these lovers, losers, and leavers; a few songs later there’s a song called “How the Mighty Have Fallen,” wherein a woman takes her man back not with arms outstretched to the prodigal, but with a sneer in her voice and gloating rights to be claimed. But in a record full of characters who are either taking flight or being shot down, the most satisfying comeuppance may be the one in “Four Years of Chances,” which is pure R&B with its electric piano, funky electric bass line, and barbed wire guitar fills. (If you don’t think electric piano belongs in a country song, get hip to Hag on his great Serving 190 Proof record, and the song “Footlights” in particular.)  It’s an addictive, celebratory send-off that seems to build a kind of swirling stormcloud of power and self-possession the longer it plays; the lyric, an anthem of hard-won empowerment that uses feminist country anthems like “Fist City” as its touchstone, finds a woman sending her man packing after giving him four long years of her life. While he was out carousing she was back at home doing the chores, without so much as a wedding band to show for it; the song seems like it’s generated spontaneously from her evaporated patience and sudden self-realization: “I gave you four years of chances/ To try and fill a happy home/ But now one more may as well we/ A million and one.”

For all the smart left hooks and thrust elbows on this record, there’s a real hurt underneath it all: Price is no stranger to loss (she’s spoken candidly about falling into deep self-medication following the death of one of her twin sons), and all the rising and falling of this record—all the snark in the lyrics and triumphalism of Price’s recent underdog success—are framed by ephemerality. The song’s magnificent opener is called “Hands of Time,” a graceful countrypolitan epic with Technicolor strings, ragged acoustic guitar fills, and a head full of pop grandeur. “All I want to do/ Is making something last/ But I can’t see the future/ And I can’t change the past,” she sings, a weathered, hard-knock anthem; a survivor’s song that mirrors Price’s own story in its tale of a gal who leaves home flat-broke, paying dues and encountering one misfortune after another in her quest to create something transcendent—and preferably something that’ll sell. That the real-life Margo Price has made something meaningful and successful—she has created a record that translates timeless tropes into a personal statement—gives the song a faint air of victory, but it’s bittersweet: Just as the characters on Midwest Farmer’s Daughter all find the ground changing right under their feet, the “Hands of Time” narrator knows that she’s building sandcastles amidst crashing waves. Things fall apart and time changes everything; in this world even the queen of the hill will fall from the top of the heap eventually. But she’s busted her ass to get here; she’s making the most of it; she can’t turn back the tide of time—but she’s building on the shoreline anyway, and the record she’s made may outlive us all.


Further resources:

  • Stream it on Apple Music.
  • Stream it on Spotify.
  • Buy it on Amazon.
  • Read Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s All Music review.
  • Ready Jewly Hight’s NPR review.
  • Read Steve Horowitz’ Popmatters review.
  • Learn more of Price’s backstory in this Rolling Stone Country feature.

PLANT A SEED

Or: Southern Family‘s ties that bind.

southernfamily

Southern Family is a patchwork mosaic, epic in its themes and its sense of history but intimate in its detail and its craft; you only see the big picture when you step back to consider the panoramic view. Anderson East’s song “Learning” may be the one that comes closest to presenting the whole album in microcosm, though. The song has regional roots, but isn’t country music per se; it’s sentimental, but also complicated; it is undeniably southern, both in form and inflection, but doesn’t lean on archetypes or make any particular effort to teach the South to non-southerners. As a bonus, it’s groovewise: East rides elastic bass, roiling organ, and punchy bursts of brass for a bit of high-intensity southern soul that could just as easily be topped by Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett, Van Morrison or Ray Lamontagne. The song references George Jones and bait-and-casting, but the concrete particulars are in service of something bigger: It’s a story about fathers and sons, about how “it takes a man to teach a man,” about how the lessons of masculinity are so often passed down without words. But then there’s a twist: When sonny grows up mom and dad find their marriage on the rocks—but the old man’s still teaching lessons in the gracious way he navigates betrayal and divorce. And then he drops the bombshell: He’s still learning to be a man himself, with every day and every struggle. East plays even the most sentimental moments with gravel and grit, and illustrates a lesson he may well have learned from his own father—or perhaps from listening to Waylon Jennings records: You can be tough and you can be emotional at the same time.

This particular patchwork mosaic was stitched together by producer Dave Cobb, an award winner who has been a behind-the-scenes mastermind for Nashville’s country/roots renaissance—a movement of artists in open rebellion against the lifestyle-branding and Top 40 sheen of contemporary country radio, but also against the po-faced severity of so much alt-country. Think artists who convey authenticity without making a big stink about it, who make twang feel like something more than an affectation, who know that rootedness doesn’t preclude melody, spontaneity, or fun. Think Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Miranda Lambert, and Brandy Clark, who are all present here; think Sturgill Simpson, Ashley Monroe, and even the Drive-By Truckers, who might as well be.

But Southern Family exemplifies East’s lesson from “Learning”—that is, it teaches by example. It may be a rallying cry or a galvanizing statement in its form and execution, but not in its content. There are no kiss-offs to country radio here, and no self-satisfied pronouncements of genuineness. Instead, Cobb wisely structures the album as a sly and subtle showcase for the rich diversity of American roots music; the record covers a lot of ground and betrays different schools of song craft in a way that’s sneaky, the full effect not really evident until you make it through the whole record a time or two. A lot of the credit for that has to go to Cobb’s production, which casually unspools symphonic flourishes from John Paul White’s stark and dusty “Simple Song” and follows Miranda Lambert’s light gospel harmonies with the heavy swamp blues of Morgane and Chris Stapleton’s “You Are My Sunshine.” The album’s sequencing is deft: Cobb takes advantage of the various-artist diversity to arrange some killer jukebox moments—listen to how Jamey Johnson’s down-home ballad “Mama’s Table” leads so smoothly into the opening thump of East’s jam—but also to draw thematic connections, as he does with Zac Brown’s “Grandma’s Garden” leading into its conjoined twin, Johnson’s number.

The record isn’t just a master class in flow, though; it’s also rich in themes, and the big one here is family. The songwriters assemble here consider familial bonds through a prism of childhood memories, loss, longing, and reunion. There are songs about betrayal and about death, but they’re all seen through the lens of husbands and wives, fathers and sons, kids and their grandparents. And often, these songs aren’t quite what they seem. Jason Isbell’s song “God is a Working Man”—lighter in its touch than anything he’s done since he was a Drive-by Trucker—is something like a church song fused to a union song, imagining the Almighty as something like a miracle-rendering assembly line worker but then inverting its view to celebrate a southern evangelist whose labors are in love and mercy, passion and non-judgment. Isbell writes the song as a dialogue between a preacher and a thief—shades of “All Along the Watchtower,” perhaps—and makes the song’s family connections palpable: The song becomes a blue-collar spin on the Christian doctrine of vocation, a celebration of the men and women who are doing whatever work they’ve been given. Is that not proof enough that they’re made in God’ image?

cobb

Gospel strains are important here, even if nothing is explicitly religious or liturgical in its content. Miranda Lambert’s song “Sweet By and By” uses southern spirituals as a touchstone, and like Aretha’s Spirit in the Dark (or perhaps the final song from Lambert’s own Platinum) proves that gospel music is just as much about form and feel as religious messaging. There is sanctified steel guitar here, and an atypical tenderness in Lambert’s singing that’s far-removed from “Kerosene” and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; the lyric, like so many others on this record, is Southern not as a pose or a stance but simply as a habit of being, naturally working in references to hunting and fishing and reading the Bible but circling back, again and again, to the importance of family ties: Its exhortation to “plant a seed and watch it grow” may be the key metaphor on a record so concerned with lineage and generations. Its bookend may be East’s more boisterous ode to family bonds, or perhaps Rich Robinson’s closing “The Way Home,” a gathering windstorm of organ and electric guitar that opens up into handclaps, Pentecostal fervor, and down-home spirituality.

Everyone on this album is just on—assuming you’re alright with the Stapletons bringing a decidedly heavy hand to a lightweight folk song—and in its variety and its skillful execution the album has a casual virtuosity: The antithesis of flash, it instead comes from a place where craft is etched out over time, songwriting and performance voices are forged over low-burning embers, and traditions are passed down with real care. It’s an album rich in nifty tricks of songwriting, production, and sequencing— how Brandy Clark’s song is so suggestive of human mortality even in its spare, economical language, metaphor abandoned in place of considered candor, everything about the song betraying both deep emotion but also a distinctly Southern reluctance to reveal too much too soon; how Brown and Johnson work such similar metaphors of family life and toe a similar line of sentimentality but enrich rather than repeat one another, Brown’s more radio-ready sweetness flowing naturally into Johnson’s tender masculinity; how Cobb’s cousin Brent goes full redneck at the beginning of “Down Home” before the song takes off into riotous Dixie Chicken funk. By emphasizing both the diversity and connectivity of these songs, Cobb and the assembled performers create an album that unfolds like a novel but packs plenty of mixtape thrills; Cobb underscores the diversity of this movement, one where there’s room for Holly Williams’ shaggy narratives and kickdrum thump right alongside the Stapletons’ slow blooze and Johnson’s back-porch balladry. Each voice is given plenty of room for distinct expression even while the cumulative effect is complementary, compounding, richly thematic—and thus, an album about family ends up proving its own point.


Further resources: