Sturgill Simpson’s ‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth’
Sturgill Simpson’s ‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth’ is the rare album that traverses the entire world, both musically and lyrically. It’s dizzyingly diverse, jumping from one style to the next, with ports of call in Motor City and Music Row, Harlem and Stax, Berlin and London, yet it never leaves Simpson’s very specific point of view. It’s his most personal album as well as his most ambitious: a song cycle penned as a sailor’s poignant letter home to the wife and child he left behind.
Aptly, ‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth’ is all over the map, presenting Simpson as music’s most daring auteur. He combines the sophisticated soul of ’70s Motown, the stomping r&b flash of the Dap-Kings, the reckless rave-ups of the Stones and the Clash, even the countrypolitan flare of legendary Nashville producer Owen Bradley. “I wanted it to be an exploration of all the different types of music that I love — a musical journey,” he says. “I listen to a lot of Marvin Gaye, a lot of Bill Withers. I like the way George Harrison sings and tried to incorporate that. Some people will say I’m trying to run from country, but I’m never going to make anything other than a country record. As soon as I open my mouth, it’s going to be a country song.”
For Simpson, who produced the album himself, country music is a strong foundation for heady experimentation and exploration. He’s been leading the charge to expand the genre’s reach, opening the doors for a new generation of rule-breaking musicians. His 2013 debut, ‘High Top Mountain,’ introduced him as a bold and raucous innovator with a sharp burr of a voice and a rousing band behind him. He followed it up quickly with 2014’s ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,’ a headtrip album full of backmasked guitars, psychedelic Mellotron strings and heartfelt musings on the universe and his place within it. The album proved a surprise international hit, placing high on year-end lists of at array of publications, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone, L.A. Times, Vogue, Stereogum, NPR Music and the Village Voice.
But when his son was born around the time that ‘Metamodern’ was garnering rave reviews, Simpson began to rethink his place in the music business machinery. “I really questioned whether I wanted to spend however many more years on this bus, not being there and seeing all that was happening,” he says. “That’s where this record came from, just processing all that guilt and homesickness. I had to figure out a way to put that into music, so I decided to write the whole record from the perspective of a sailor going to sea and not knowing if he’s ever coming home.” The idea has deep roots in the Simpson family: “I remembered an old letter that I read, written by my Grandfather Ora to my grandmother when he was in the Army. He was in the South Pacific during World War II, and he thought he was going to die. So he wrote a goodbye letter to her and their newborn son. He finally made it home five years later.”
To convey that deep sense of yearning that illuminates ‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,’ Simpson drew not only from his life as a touring musician, but also from his own experiences in the U.S. Navy. He enlisted as a teenager and shipped out to basic training just two weeks after graduating high school. A few months later, he found himself on a frigate in Southeast Asia, spending ninety days at sea on a cramped, gray boat, then a few days at a different port. “I can’t even believe that’s the same person. We were so young, and we couldn’t comprehend the immense responsibility of what we were doing everyday. It seems like a lifetime ago.”
In some ways, however, he remains that young seaman, his life still defined by transience. “I’ve lived out of a bag my whole life,” he says. He had a lost year in Seattle, worked on the railroad in Utah, then hit Nashville and started playing bars and open-mic nights. It never bothered him until his son was born. “I had to go out on the road for a year and a half, so I watched him grow up in photographs. I wrote the lyrics on the road and figured I’d put them to music when we were in the studio. Everything came together on the fly.”
Once the ‘Metamodern’ tour wound down, Simpson booked some time at the Butcher Shoppe in Nashville for what were intended to be laidback demo sessions with engineer David Ferguson (Johnny Cash, U2, John Prine). “The whole point was to go in and just woodshed some songs to get some demos down to see where I was.” He wanted the music to convey a sense of urgency, and a few days later, he emerged with a completed album: fully formed, remarkably focused, deeply personal and confidently self-produced to capture on tape the music that was playing in his head.
“I knew I 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.” He does just that on opener “Welcome To Earth (Pollywog),” which kicks the album off with a tense drone intro that relents to a Bowie-by-way-of-Bradley piano theme. Simpson sings like there aren’t actually thousands of fans listening in: “Hello, my son, welcome to Earth. You may not be my last but you’ll always be my first.” A few measures later, the song explodes into a stomping r&b coda that showcases his soulful vocals and the down-and-dirty flash of the Dap-Kings horn section.
The deeply intimate nature of the record demanded that Simpson produce it himself. He didn’t see any way to collaborate with anyone else, but knew he needed to make sure he could get what was in his head out into the world. He drew on his own experiences as a music listener: “I’ve never produced an album before, but I’ve spent a lot of time laying on the floor with headphones on, just listening and studying the music in terms of texture and space and movement.”
Side one ends with a cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” rendered completely unrecognizable by a swirl of strings and horns. It’s a song that means a great deal to Simpson, who grew up in a broken home and found solace in ‘Nevermind.’ “I remember in seventh or eighth grade, when that album dropped, it was like a bomb went off in my bedroom. For me, that song has always summed up what it means to be a teenager, and I think it tells a young boy that he can be sensitive and compassionate — he doesn’t have to be tough or cold to be a man. So I wanted to make a very beautiful and pure homage to Kurt.”
The world Simpson depicts for his son on the quiet lullaby “Breaker’s Roar” and the blazing rocker “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)” is immense and full of boundless possibility. Yet he realizes “the world’s getting really scary — scarier than it’s been in a long time. And I’m scared for him. What is the world going to be like twenty years from now?” That concern pervades ‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,’ especially the final song. “Call to Arms” surveys the evils of the world: terrorism, missile tests, oil wars, racism, all the bullshit that breeds on the nightly news. With its breakneck pace, the song sounds like an exorcism, evoking the worry that all parents feel about how the world will treat their children. “Son, I hope you don’t grow up believing that you have to be a puppet to be a man.”
On ‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,’ Simpson comes across as a man torn between the lure of the road and the security of home, between his love of family and his responsibilities to them, to himself, to his art. “I know what music has done for me in my life in terms of offering some kind of direction and comfort,” he says. “I might be out there in the middle of tour wondering how I’m going to keep doing this when I’m missing everything at home. But it’s also making a lot of people happy that I’ve never met before. So it’s worth it. I think my wife understands that. Hopefully my son will too. When he’s old enough, maybe he can come with me.”
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