SOUND & FURY
Sturgill Simpson has managed to do what I wasn't sure anyone could do for me anymore; introduce me to something unique musically. I need to start this off by admitting my bias. I'm a fan of Sturgill Simpson. I've poured over his lyrics, made the connections and admired the concepts of each record he has made. I suppose "man crush" could be a proper term.....I crush on the man's music. It's changed my life, much like The Beatles, The Beastie Boys, The Replacements, and Waylon Jennings have done after I absorbed their music. So, yeah, this album I'm about to talk about was going to be a tough record for me to NOT like. So, with that out of the way, I'll continue. One doesn't usually associate psychedelia, meditation, and rebellion with what most would consider a "country" artist. I am not a fan of genre, but for the sake of conversation, I do realize categorization is necessary. With the release of "Sound & Fury" I think it's safe to say that Simpson is a genre-bender on an all-time great scale. With the release of the Grammy Award winning album "A Sailor's Guide To Earth" you could feel it coming on as he started the transition away from a traditional sound to a style that was willing to dip its' toes into a lot of different musical pools, metaphorically speaking of course.
"Sound & Fury" may not sound like the prototypical "outlaw" album, but I feel it's the most outlaw thing he's done since giving a good woman a ring. You would never describe this as honky tonk or country music, but it does have those elements soaked in that you can vaguely feel bubbling below the surface. Lyrically, Sturgill isn't too coy, but most of his fans are going to understand that he is singing to Nashville, the corporate music world, and the fame machine and there isn't much sweetness in his words. He gets his digs in. He "love(s) to say no to all the yes men, just to see the looks on their face" and announces that it's "fuck y'all season". To go along with that, the music is also a thunderous message to the establishment. He is telling them he won't be boxed in and he is separating the wheat from the chaff. This is a man letting the world know that he is going to make his art and shape his life in a way that he sees fit. There isn't much room for compromise and you can either stick with him and his art, or you can get off the bus. There is also a Japanese style anime movie released as the video track for the album. You can find that on Netflix. There are plenty of visual clues in the film that coincide directly with the message he is putting out there in the music.
Yeah, anyone that knows me, is going to understand all of the aforementioned is in my wheelhouse. I love musicians and filmmakers that don't lock themselves into an idea of themselves, or what others see them to be. You can't move forward running in place. Sturgill keeps forging ahead and with each album release, you can feel that he is stretching his talents and challenging himself. "Sound & Fury" is a collection of music that I've heard thousands of times, yet feels fresh and special. All the boxes are checked; The Cars, ZZ Top, Pink Floyd, James Brown, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kool and the Gang, Led Zeppelin, Giorgio Moroder among many other influences. No, you don't see Merle, Hank, or Waylon on that list. Their spirit remains, but the music is rooted in 70's hard rock, funk, New Wave, and southern style rock n roll. The guitar work is vicious and in your face at times and rarely feels restrained. Sturgill continues to impress me with his guitar work. The astute listener will hear Jimmy Page, David Gilmour and other rock gods permeating from the strings. It's a lot of fun to watch him go to work when seeing him live, but he manages to convey his energy and skill on wax as well. I'm not sure if it was any part intentional, but there is NOTHING on this record that can be played on your local Top 40 country radio station. Nashville will not be able to even try to get a hand on his coattails He has black balled them from his success. He didn't need them to become who he is. The CMA and money machine has stripped most mainstream music from Nashville of its' authenticity. To borrow the title of one of the albums strongest tracks, Sturgill is going to "Make Art, Not Friends".
The album has been a revelation. I've never heard anything quite like it. It was like hearing "Dark Side of the Moon" or "Paul's Boutique" and being truly overcome with the feeling that what you are hearing is special. It hadn't been done THAT way before. It demands to be listened to loud. The mix pulls the vocals back into the music, so if you want to find them, you gotta crank the volume to 11. You gotta work for it. The album sleeve says it all; "Fuck Your Speakers". He is meaning to kick your ass and grab you by your metaphoric balls. "Sound & Fury" is a great headphone album. The synth grooves, vicious guitar, and relentless rhythm section give it an "ear candy" quality without being soft or immediately soothing. After a few listens, the subtlety started to emerge for me. I got comfortable with the music and the funk groove and beats started to show through and just totally hooked me.
This is a true concept album. With each album it has felt like an evolution was taking place in the way Simpson structured song sequences and weaved a bit of a narrative from start to finish. This record sees all of that come to a head. You are hearing the collection of songs as one piece of art. The listener is along for the ride as the radio switches stations suddenly and we get a blast of something different than what we were just immersed in. On The Joe Rogan Experience, Simpson made it clear that he saw the album as one piece of music. There aren't many musicians that make albums quite like that anymore. How many artists will release and album these days with only 9 or 10 tracks? Usually you will get 13 to 15. It's all thrown at you, hoping a song or two sticks. Sturgill is about creating an experience and in my opinion, he has made his best album to date. The total package is there. The lyrics, the music, the concept, the passion, the visuals are at a peak (or are they?). Some of his fans are going to treat this like Bob Dylan going electric. That's OK, because Sturgill isn't stuck in the past. He is moving on. The anime video is moving him towards a potential new group of fans. He has a graphic novel based on the "Sound & Fury" film in the works and the musical direction is putting his sound into the ears of millennial types who may not have otherwise wanted to listen to "country" music. It's shrewd and potentially risky, although I'm not sure Sturgill would even acknowledge either. He doesn't seem like a guy that doesn't have a plan though. He is the anti-sell out. The easy move would have been to do a sequel to "A Sailors Guide...". To stay accessible for his audience and new fans, but not really challenging himself or them. With "Sound & Fury", Sturgill Simpson has set the bar high. It has quickly catapulted into one of my favorite records ever. It feels wrong to wrap this up without having mentioned Sturgill's band. They are a trio of fantastic musicians that give Sturgill the excellence that he strives for. He allows them to be a part of the process and they reward him with steady, clever, and on point craftsmanship. Drummer Miles Miller, bassist Chuck Bartels, and keyboardist Bobby Emmett are all Sturgill needs to burn a house down. Those guys can rock, they can slow it down, they can be whatever they are needed to be.
There are a ton of reviews out there, if you like that sort of thing and I urge anyone that isn't really into sitting down and listening to an album, to perhaps turn on Netflix and check out the anime film which coincides with the album. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's a visual doorway into the music and that music is worth hearing.