STURGILL SIMPSON – SOUND & FURY
Blues rock/Psychedelic rock
Sturgill Simpson is a country and Americana singer and songwriter who refuses to be put in a box and takes pride in being a rebel. At least that’s what one would think based on his releases and actions, like busking outside the CMA awards in Nashville with his Grammy award for Best Country Album by his side.
SOUND & FURY is Simpson’s fourth album, following up the album that won him the aforementioned Grammy, 2016’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. While that album bucked country music traditions in its own way with strings and horns pushing songs into the territory of soul and funk, SOUND & FURY pushes boundaries even further with a sound that’s more balls-out boogie rock and roll than outlaw country. In fact, the only thing tying the sound of this album to anything released before it is Simpson’s distinctive drawl.
Simpson has described this album as a “sleazy, steamy, rock ‘n’ roll album” and it certainly delivers on that front. The guitars constantly have fuzz or filtering effects on them, with occasional synths and organs fighting for elbow room in the mix. The result is a sound that conjures a lot of descriptions, but “clean” is never one of them. Simpson’s vocals are often doubled with other effects, adding another layer of grease. It’s as if they took the concept of the rough recordings of The Black Keys early work and cranked up the sonic qualities and change a dusty recording to a grimy, post-apocalyptic one.
While songs like “Sing Along” and “Best Clockmaker On Mars” are some of the finest examples of the sleazy rock and roll–the former having a super steady drumbeat and synth bass pushing things towards late ’80s ZZ Top–other influences appear as well. “A Good Look” (co-written with John Prine) leans heavily towards disco and, for some reason, I imagine “Mercury In Retrograde” wouldn’t feel out of place at a Jimmy Buffett concert.
Lyrically the album delivers on the “sleazy, steamy” side with innuendos in the lyrics of “Remember To Breathe” and “Last Man Standing.” Other lyrical themes range from more typical blues rock fare like snide remarks at a former lover on “Sing Along,” but the most prevalent is the loneliness and alienation that accompanies fame on the tracks “Make Art Not Friends,” “Mercury In Retrograde,” and “Best Clockmaker On Mars.” The latter of the three might even be a reference to Dr. Manhattan from the graphic novel Watchmen.
A few lyrics add to the post-apocalyptic feel of the album, and likely provide the inspiration for the visuals of the anime film that accompanies the album. The film was made in collaboration with artist Takashi Okazaki (Afro Samurai, Batman Ninja) and Junpei Mizusaki (Batman Ninja). The film is more or less in the same vein as Daft Punk and Leiji Matsumoto’s Interstella 5555, in that there is no dialogue. The film only serves as a long-form music video for the entire album. Unlike Interstella, SOUND & FURY is non-linear, and in some ways more artistic, with some segments integrating live actors and having little to do with the central narrative. The film is worth watching at least once to get the full experience.
My only criticism of the album is that it can be sonically exhausting at times. I mentioned before that the instruments are often fighting for space. It’s a stylistic choice that gives a sense of a massive rock sound, and further drives the dirty, post-apocalyptic image that Simpson and his band are trying to conjure. However, there is very little breathing room on the album, and you are bombarded with a wall of sound for the better part of 41 minutes. There are a few welcome respites at the beginning of “Make Art Not Friends” and the entire track “All Said and Done,” but it’s not quite enough. The former is also a little too busy and loud for the sentiment it’s trying to convey.
Overall, I think SOUND & FURY is a great album, and easily the best raw, bluesy rock ‘n’ roll album I’ve heard all year. My followers on Instagram know that I praised the single “Sing Along” when it came out, saying that Simpson made a better Black Keys song than the Black Keys have in years. And I doubled down on that stance when I heard the whole album. It’s a style of rock music that I feel has been lacking in recent years and I’m happy to have Simpson’s offering to show me that it’s not dead.