Since the 2012 dissolution of his bluegrass band Sunday Valley, songwriter, seriously badass guitar player, expectation-defier and preternaturally gifted country crooner Sturgill Simpson has quickly come into his own. His latest album A Sailor's Guide to Earth is his third in as many years and by far his most ambitious and genre-diverse, featuring elements of soul, jazz, southern rock and country. Sailor's Guide was preceded by the excellent High Top Mountain (2013), an album of straight-forward yet solid hard country, and the groundbreaking, star-making, tour de force Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014), a more or less classic country album with delicate psychedelic flourishes and inventive, pseudo-philosophical lyrics.
Less adventurous fans of Metamodern will scoff at this new Simpson produced, Dap Kings-featuring curveball. Not that Simpson cares. Though he has expressed some concern about whether he'll keep his fans as he progresses artistically, he's explained on multiple occasions that he's not beholden to any boundaries set by the country music mainstream. He was never going to sit still or be content to repeat himself.
That the album starts off with the framing song "Welcome To Earth (Pollywog)," sounding like a nursery rhyme tune rising from rough noise, is telling. Simpson wants to craft something perfect and innocent, a guide to life (it's in the album's title, duh), out of the chaos and pain of his own experience. Truth be told, though it's hard to raise aesthetic quibbles with an artist as gifted and sincere as Simpson, "Welcome," like a few other parts here, is weighed down by its own sentimentality and lofty sonic ambitions. I mean, it's hard to imagine a more powerful or terrifying goal than crafting a mission statement, apology and life-guide for your child. But, Simpson is an artist who stubbornly chases his own vision – temperance and expectations be damned – which proves his greatest asset (besides his fantastic voice and band) and his only weakness.
The album's immediate standouts include lead single "Brace For Impact (Live a Little)," a heady Southern rock song with jazz infusions, "Keep it Between the Lines," a jangly and soulful number, full of brass and bravado, and album closer "Call To Arms," a furious, country rock send up of war. And then there's "In Bloom," a Nirvana cover and the album's second single, which succeeds on the sheer power of Simpson's delivery. All things considered, Sailor's Guide is at once a cantankerous contrarian's statement, a beautiful and ambitious song set, and a massive artistic leap of faith. Simpson's bravery and self-reliance are to be celebrated every bit as much as his considerable talent.