by Josh Hurst
Or: Why Would Sturgill Simpson lie to you?
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.
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.
- Stream it on Apple Music.
- Stream it on Spotify.
- Buy it on Amazon.
- Read Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s All Music review.
- Read Ann Powers’ NPR review.
- Read Eric Risch’ PopMatters review.