Review: A Sailor’s Guide to Earth by Sturgill Simpson

Review: A Sailor’s Guide to Earth by Sturgill Simpson
Sturgill-Simpson Review

Courtesy Photo | Courtesy Photo A Sailor’s Guide to Earth by Sturgill Simpson released April 15 on RJ Records.


What in the world has Sturgill gone and done? His previous album, the Grammy-nominated Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, was one of the freshest records I’d heard in years. Following its release, more than a handful of critics anointed him the savior of country music, and deservedly so — he’d eschewed 21st century Nashville’s saccharine sounds and merged the spirit of Willie, Waylon, Merle, and Buck with heady meditations on Buddha, love, and the metaphysical.

Lead guitarist Laur Joamets’ chicken pickin’ sounded like something you’d hear on Hee Haw. Yet, Pitchfork — the snobbiest indie rock zine on the interwebs — praised the album. Sturgill seemed to have the Americana…errr…musical world in the palm of his hand, and then he went and recorded A Sailor’s Guide to Earth — a dad-rock record that buries Joamets’ virtuosity, butchers Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” and exhibits a major stylistic change that his traditionally-minded fans will no doubt struggle to stomach. The Dap-Kings play on five of the album’s nine songs, and although I love their work with Sharon Jones, this is a Sturgill Simpson record.

What gives?


I’m going to disregard the “dad-rock” shade thrown (spot on in literal terms though, with the album dedicated to his newborn son) at one of the most creative “country-ish” albums I’ve heard in recent memory. Yes, Sturgill went in deep with the esoteric inSailor’s Guide, but I found it to be way impressive in terms of originality, production quality and vision.

So many artists these days are going for the RAW SHIT that the days of major analog production — orchestras, horns, tape modulation, grandiose moments — are looked at as overdone and trite. There’s truth to that when the music at its core sucks, but I think this is genuine, quality work.

You’re right, Laur Joamets (his Estonian Excellency) and his guitar playing isn’t as featured as he could have been. That said, in lieu of guitar virtuosity there are some to-die-for horns on this album from the Dap-Kings. They brought the boogie to what would have otherwise been a spacey experimental country record. I found the album deftly treads the line between soul, rowdy country and psychedelic rock.

As for the weirdo “In Bloom” cover on the album, I think Simpson did the unexpected and brought a left-field perspective to a 90s grunge song; something all LP covers should aim for. It’s 2016. The golden era of outlaw country is behind us. I say we move into whatever freaky world Sturgill Simpson is creating and apply for citizenship.

Alright Nick,

You and Sturgill have convinced me. Having spent a couple more weeks with this album, during which I coincidentally became uncle to a new nephew, I think I finally get it. In fact, I’m now convinced this is what dad-rock should be. To his credit, Sturgill isn’t opining about washing dishes and mowing lawns ala Jeff Tweedy in “Hate it Here.” Rather, he’s imparting heartfelt, sagely advice to his baby boy—advice he seems to wish he had received while a “pollywog” in the U.S. Navy. The counsel he gives on “Keep It Between the Lines” is reminiscent of (and every bit as poignant as) that delivered in the Drive-By Truckers’ “Outfit,” and I don’t make that comparison lightly.

I initially balked at the “In Bloom” cover because a.) Sturgill’s sneaky inclusion of “to love someone” in the chorus struck me as lazy Nashville cliche, and b.) I’ve always believed covers should preserve the musical and lyrical spirit of the original (see, for example, Polyphonic Spree’s ridiculous yet sufficiently anxious cover of Nirvana’s “Lithium,” recently featured on The Big Short). I’ve since forgiven Sturgill for the lyrical addition and now see that the song fits the album’s central concept beautifully. It takes artistic guts to reinterpret a Nirvana song, and Sturgill has successfully done it.

Those rowdy red-dirt bros who made a ruckus at his concerts last year won’t like all that production, but maybe that’s the point? Talented artists evolve, and fans will come and go. In a press release, Sturgill said he “wanted to make a concept record in song-cycle form, like my favorite Marvin Gaye records where everything just continuously flows. I also wanted it to be something that when my son is older and maybe I’m gone, he can listen to it and get a sense of who I was. I just wanted to talk as directly to him as possible.” Mission accomplished. A Sailor’s Guide to Earthis a soulful, earnest album that should confirm, not cast doubt on, Sturgill’s reputation as a savior of country-ish music.

Grade: 7.9

Categories: Music