Best of 2014: Sturgill Simpson - "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music"
When No Depression launched as a print magazine in 1995, its positioning as an alternative-country quarterly was intended to be squarely in contrast to the dominant acts on mainstream country radio at the time. The magazine championed the organic sounds of Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks while the likes of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain showcased pyrotechnic bombast in their arena shows.
This was nothing new, of course; the simultaneous existence of “two country musics” is almost a tradition in and of itself. When the early-mid 1980s belonged largely to smooth pop acts such as Kenny Rogers and Alabama, bubbling underneath was a new traditionalist crowd that eventually brought the likes of Rodney Crowell and Dwight Yoakam to the fore. In the mid-’70s, Willie and Waylon and the boys played outlaw grit against the crossover glamor of Olivia Newton-John and John Denver. And, when the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and others began cross-breeding country with rock in the late ’60s, Billboard’s country charts were still flush with crooners of the Jack Greene/Eddy Arnold variety.
With that in mind, it’s been no surprise to witness the anointing of open-minded traditionalist Sturgill Simpson as left-of-center country’s latest savior at a time when the genre’s major draws include reactionary synthesists such as Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line. Almost every era has contained two country musics: That which is held up as a reflection of the contemporary mass marketplace, and that which is actually driving the genre to both reconnect with its past and redefine its future.
If all of this seems a bit meta, it’s fitting that Simpson’s breakthrough album is titled Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. The record is a breakthrough not only for the artist himself but also for country’s continuing horizons as a progressive yet rooted musical form. And this differs from the alternate avenue the Americana subgenre provides: Though Simpson unsurprisingly has been well-received by that camp, he’s reshaping country not by finding his place within the broad scope of its fringes, but by pushing outward from its very core.
This journey to country’s future by way of its past is what sets Metamodern Sounds apart. As a singer, Simpson is about as hard-boiled country in sound and spirit as the genre has heard since Waylon Jennings, the artist to whom he is most often compared — justifiably, to some extent, though Simpson ultimately is a good deal more than merely a Waylon acolyte. Although he and his band ground their sound in honky-tonk barroom twang, they drop plenty of hints along the way before the floodgates finally open on the album’s last listed track, “It Ain’t All Flowers,” a tripped-out sonic adventure driven by loops and distortion.
Simpson lays the groundwork for such psych-country experimentation right from the opening track with “Turtles All the Way Down,” a game-changing song that philosophizes about religions and hallucinogens within the bounds of a richly melodic old-school backdrop awash in guitars and string sounds. We meet Jesus, the devil, and Buddha before the end of the first verse, which arrives at no grand conclusions other than to “try to have some fun showing warmth to everyone.”
It’s telling, too, that as rooted as “Turtles” sounds at first — quiet acoustic guitar picking underpins electric twang as Simpson’s warmly burnished baritone glows above — it’s a decidedly nonconformist composition from a structural standpoint. There is no chorus, just a handful of verses that don’t necessarily even conform to each other. Everything hinges on a moment two-thirds of the way through in which the production takes a subtle but distinct turn toward a sparkling timbre that almost suggests the Flaming Lips, framing a few lines that rise up from the song’s foundation like vapor-flowers blooming out of rich loamland.
Every time I take a look
Inside that old and fabled book
I’m blinded and reminded of
The pain caused by some old man in the sky
Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, DMT
They all changed the way I see
But love’s the only thing that ever saved my life
In seven lines, Simpson challenges the virtues of Christianity and considers the benefits of psychotropics before concluding, ironically, that “the greatest of these is love.” There’s plenty more to dig into here — the previous verse’s reference to “reptile aliens made of light,” Simpson’s doubts about the illegality of chemicals “we all make in our brain,” and the impossible-to-parse title lyric, “It’s turtles all the way down the line.” It all adds up to a sort of mystical manifesto that feels like a separation of country’s church and state: If you hear a certain sound and expect a partnering sentiment, it’s time to toss those expectations out the window.
Which isn’t to suggest that Simpson is entirely averse to coloring within country’s lines. On “Voices,” which in some respects feels like a distant cousin to George Jones’ “Choices,” he’s more straightforward in his approach. The music sticks to fairly standard country ballad territory, with a sweet steel guitar solo at the midpoint. Topically, its message about the white noise of those who speak too much yet say too little comes through clearly, though Simpson adds a few exquisite lyrical touches: “The rivers are all crying, but the ocean cannot speak/ Until her waters crash into uncharted shores so dark and bleak.”
“A Little Light” succeeds in much the same way, and again, it vaguely echoes a well-known song, the country-gospel standard “This Little Light of Mine.” Whizzing by in just a minute and 40 seconds, it’s probably the most traditional number on the album, but it fits, in part because of its length (or lack thereof): Simpson says all he needs to say, and no more. To an upbeat rhythm buoyed by handclaps, Simpson summarizes, “I don’t need nothing but a little light in my heart, glowing inside me like a blanket of love.” Though the path is shorter and simpler, essentially he’s arriving at the same conclusion he did earlier, in “Turtles.”
Though Simpson’s own compositions clearly are the drawing card on Metamodern Sounds, we may learn most about the artist from the two covers that cleanly bisect the album at its midpoint. That Simpson chose to devote 20 percent of the runtime to works by other writers is in and of itself a testament to his wisdom, and a practice that should be followed by many if not most singer-songwriters. Even the most talented tunesmiths aren’t necessarily going to come up with 10 songs fully worth committing to record every time they go into the studio. Meanwhile, a century of recorded popular music awaits rediscovery and reimagination. An ultimate example: The Late Great Townes Van Zandt included tracks by Hank Williams, Guy Clark, and Lawton Williams alongside the best gathering of originals Van Zandt ever laid down.
Furthermore, we can learn a great deal about artists through the covers they choose to record. It’s not simply a revelation of who their influences might be; as important, if not more so, is the context the covers provide for the originals. Perhaps most significant of all is the manner in which an artist adapts the material to his or her own persona; in a best-case scenario, a cover is internalized so deeply that it becomes almost impossible to imagine the song’s vision could have come from an external source.
That’s what happens here on “The Promise,” a seemingly unlikely selection on the surface. A 1988 dance-pop hit for the one-hit wonder trio When In Rome, it has been revisited quite a bit by a variety of acts, from SoCal ska band Reel Big Fish to atmospheric singer-songwriter Holly Miranda to Texas art-rockers Blue October. Though it wasn’t a smash hit – it topped out at No. 11 on the Billboard pop charts – clearly it struck a sentimental chord with those of a certain age, most likely those who were pre-teens when the song was on the radio. (Simpson turned 10 that year.)
The song’s lyrics could be considered trite or shallow — “If you need a friend, don’t look to a stranger/ You know in the end, I’ll always be there” — but in the medium of mainstream pop hits, often the simplest language best fits the form and purpose. Simpson’s genius here is realizing how beautifully that simplicity played into the country ballad aesthetic. Despite having been covered by at least a dozen other artists, “The Promise” apparently had not previously been tackled by a country singer.
Yet if you’d never heard the original or the other versions, you’d be surprised to find that it ever existed as anything but a country song. That’s how convincing and memorable Simpson’s delivery is. This is where the Waylon comparisons are most apropos, for Jennings’ reach as an interpreter seemed infinite. Echoes of Waylon’s immortal reading of Shake Russell & Dana Cooper’s “Deep in the West” linger as Simpson gives a slow burn to the song’s two verses and three rounds of the chorus before he lets loose on one last chorus, raising his voice an octave — pointedly, without the need to transition to falsetto — as he drives the song home with a dramatic grand slam.
The other mid-record cover tune is lower-key but also important in divining Simpson’s identity. “Long White Line” is a comparatively obscure track, a 1960s trucker song by Buford Abner. More of a string-band tune in the initial recorded version by Charlie Moore & Bill Napier, it was revived a few years ago by mid-level country star Aaron Tippin, who gave it a more electric but largely clean pop feel. Simpson and his bandmates dirty it up a bit with honky-tonk guitar runs and a no-nonsense rhythm that fits the song’s natural swaggering gait as Simpson sings, “Tell ’em I’m somewhere looking for the end of that long white line.”
It’s ultimately the strongest moment of old-school hard-country on the record, in part because his best shot among the album’s original tracks, “Life of Sin,” doesn’t quite measure up. What’s puzzling is that “Life of Sin” has gained a good deal of traction as the record’s most broadly heard track: This is the song Simpson and the band played on David Letterman in July, and it was also their featured track on the recent hour-long PBS broadcast from the Americana Music Association awards show taped at the Ryman Auditorium in September.
On the album, “Life of Sin” is sequenced as the second track, and coming on the heels of the revelatory “Turtles,” it’s kind of a letdown. There’s nothing specifically bad about the song; it’s every bit as good as any similar honky-tonk stomper any number of other bands with an eye toward old-school country have churned out in recent years. But that’s kind of the point: Any number of bands can do this. What’s so special about most of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is that it stands out as the work of a singular, distinctive artist.
That singularity comes fully into focus at the record’s conclusion, when the fever-dreamy meditation “Just Let Go” — which starts with the line “Woke up today and decided to kill my ego” and proceeds accordingly — segues directly into producer and engineer Dave Cobb’s brilliantly placed backward-loop effects that introduce “It Ain’t All Flowers.” Midway through the song’s nearly seven-minute runtime, Simpson lets loose with a profoundly primal scream, which serves as a cue to bring on the devolution. The final three minutes are given over to all manner of glorious damage, effectively redrawing the boundaries for Simpson as an artist, and for country as a genre.
The inclusion of a gentle denouement, “Panbowl,” as an unlisted bonus track seems a smart call, as thematically the album’s proper closing point is “It Ain’t All Flowers” and its wash of noise. But “Panbowl,” a gentle folk-acoustic number that’s more innocent than anything else on the album, helps complete the picture by bringing Simpson full circle — “all the way back to the days when I was young,” he sings. Nostalgic memories of his childhood in Kentucky provide a very relevant reminder that wherever his adventures in modern-day Nashville may take his music, part of him will always remain rooted in the bluegrass state.
Just how far he’ll branch out from those roots remains to be seen, but for now, Metamodern Sounds is a major milepost. Simpson’s 2013 debut, High Top Mountain, proved he had mastered country’s traditional forms through a decade-long tenure fronting the band Sunday Valley, but the wider vision hadn’t quite appeared yet. Looking further back, all the way to his former band’s self-titled debut in 2004, the raw material of Simpson’s vocal presence is instantly identifiable. But there was a lot still left to learn.
On “Folded Flag,” an anti-authority anthem that closed Sunday Valley’s first album, Simpson brashly boasted, “Well they might control the whole damn world, but they ain’t gonna control me.” Entertaining as the track is, with its rants about “redneck white trash motherfuckers sittin’ on their ass watchin’ CMT” as Simpson repeatedly floors his vocals into overdrive, in retrospect it’s a fascinating contrast to what the artist has become a decade later. Oversinging gave way to a greater appreciation for the nuance of his voice. The shock-value of profanity was revealed as a shallow return once Simpson dug deeper into matters that resonated with him. In the end, as Metamodern Sounds makes clear, it wasn’t about anyone trying to control him: It was about exerting that control himself.