I’ve given this album a little time before writing about it to see if I had any changing thoughts but no I’m pretty much settled on it: this album is weird. Not in the sense that the songs are weird, just that I’m not sure what this album is trying to be or even if it’s completed at all. With all the hype & mainstream crossover and the general openness of Sturgill Simpson to not limit himself to the constrains of his genre, I figured this would be some sort of americana/hipster rock album that his country fans might downright hate. They still might loathe it, but it’s not a full departure from country. And it’s not really alt-country or rock or any one thing in particular. Really the only thing helping the album stay somewhat cohesive is the smooth (and at times spacey) production. But that still leaves me wondering what kind of record Simpson wanted to make. And with all this varied influences he’s displaying how did he only come up with 9 songs?
A Sailor‘s Guide to Earth leads of with “Welcome to Earth (Polywogg)” which is part theatrical album intro and part touching piano ballad to his son before segueing into a brief soul song. “Keep it Between the Lines” is another soul song, reminding me of the soul revival happening lately with bands like Nathaniel Rateliff & the Nights Sweats or St. Paul & the Brokes Bones. “All Around You” is a little slower and a bit more country but it would fit well with the other horn laden tracks. He definitely has the booming voice for it and seems to gets the arrangements pretty well. I probably would have loved it if he fully committed to make a Sturgill Simpson and the Soulmates album. But I supposed he has other musical passions.
Oddly enough, those passions aren’t really outlaw country anymore. People have been getting excited for his cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” for awhile and I have to admit that it’s pretty strange hear Cobain’s words with pedal steel playing. But it’s a solid cover and it fits musically with two original soft and folky country songs on the album, “Breakers Roar” and “Oh Sarah”. The only uptempo traditional country song here is “Sea Stories” and even that is non traditional in the sense that he name checks Asian locals that most rural Americans probably never heard of, video games that would normally be the spot for hobbies like hunting and fishing, and a political statement about the military that’s not blind patriotism. It’s things like these why I’m interested in Simpson to begin with: he experiments with different sounds and he’s not afraid to write things in country lyrics that are smart, unique, or god forbid, liberal. But I can’t see that endearing him to a good portion of country fans.
Still after two albums Sturgill fans probably know he’s not a conventional guy. Shit, if you play outlaw country and you play by all the rules you have to be missing the point right? But I find it hard to believe that a lot of people who were into his debut album will care for a song like “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)”. I personally like it a lot, but it’s a bluesy rocker that sounds like would fit well on a Black Keys album pre-El Camino. And finally the album closes with another bluesy hard rock song, “A Call To Arms”, where Simpson rails against pointless wars, our abundance on technology and ignorance of everything going on around us, while throwing piano and guitar solos at us, and bringing back the horn section from earlier on the album and turning it up to eleven. It’s a great album closer even if I’m not sure that this is the album it belongs on.
I like Simpson. And I like this album too. At least most of it I expected to like some of the songs that weren’t so country more than the others and that’s mostly held up… but they feel pretty weird next to the other songs on this album. It really feels like he should just have multiple bands going at the same time, although if he couldn’t even manage releasing 10 tracks for this one that might be asking a lot. I know some people are going to hate this album and probably stop paying attention to Simpson. While others are going to praise this so hard that at the end of the year when all the Best Of lists come out I’m going to get so sick of hearing about this album I won’t touch it for years. But for me, for now, I’m taking the middle ground that this isn’t a masterpiece, but an enjoyable record nonetheless. And I’ll be patiently awaiting his future side project soul record.