A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

If you happened to catch the social media hubbub over Sturgill Simpson’s “In Bloom” video in late March, you’d have thought the so-called savior of country music had committed a mortal sin. In the clip, the singer puts his warm Kentucky baritone to a woozy version of the iconic Nirvana song while onscreen a human body with a cannon head rows a small wooden boat over a haunting, surreal underwater world of monsters and suburban homes. Simpson fans were left dumbfounded by the images and by the production — slick, like the countrypolitan of the late ’60s and early ’70s, but swirled with psychedelic undertones. Nirvana fans, meanwhile, were outraged at the unconventional interpretation — an ironic reaction, given that the late Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s adventurous frontman, probably would have loved it. One commenter in a thread about the video wrote, “borderline blasphemy.”

All this because Simpson, the singer with the Merle Haggard purr and Waylon Jennings swagger, chose to put strings and horns to a slowed-down earworm of a song by a band that was ubiquitous during his childhood. But if trotting out an artsy video of an unconventional arrangement of an iconic alternative rock song prior to its release on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was a risky move on Simpson’s part — after all, he chanced alienating old fans and shutting out potential new ones — it was also a bold one. A recurring comment about the “In Bloom” cover was: Why? Why would Simpson — who’d paid tribute to traditional, straightforward, gritty outlaw on his 2013 debut, High Top Mountain, and twisted the knobs on the genre with the following year’s more experimental Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, both to rave reviews — change direction so radically? And why would he transform such an adored song with the kind of lush, countrypolitan strings that were the very antithesis of outlaw country?

Here’s why: The title of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music — a play on the name of an earlier adventurous and unconventional take on country music by R&B legend Ray Charles — was practically a billboard announcing that Simpson was not going to be any kind of traditionalist, new or otherwise. Sure, he has the voice, guitar chops, and songwriting skills to play variations on “Honky-Tonk Heroes” and “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” from now until doomsday, but the “Meta” should have indicated that Simpson — who after all, did not grow up in the ’70s when there was a line in the sand between countrypolitan and outlaw — would not be adhering to a single subgenre of music. What also should have indicated this was the album’s subtle twisting and meshing of tradition with elements of a contemporary digital culture that serves up every kind of art imaginable at the click of a mouse. “I wanna make art,” Simpson told NPR’s Rachel Martin in 2014. “Something that I can wake up in 30 years and look back on and still feel proud of.”

There’s little doubt Simpson will look back with pride at A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, which takes some of the ideas he began toying with on Metamodern Sounds to completely new and unexpected heights. For one thing, it’s a full-blown concept album — a love letter to his newborn son with tips on how to live life. Taking over the production duties from Dave Cobb, who produced Simpson’s first two albums, the singer incorporates lush strings and the funky horns of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings right into the first track, “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” which begins with sounds of seagulls, crashing waves, a lighthouse bell, and electronics before dissolving into a childlike piano melody and Simpson’s bright, mellifluous voice intoning, “Hello, my son. Welcome to earth. You may not be my last, but you’ll always be my first.” The lines are accompanied by lovely, swelling strings and dramatic percussion, followed by sweet pedal steel. But at the 2:40 mark, the song takes a sharp detour into red-hot, ’70s-style Memphis/Muscle Shoals funk as Simpson explains to his son that he may not always be around, because he’s a musician who’s on the road a lot: “If sometimes daddy has to go away, please don’t think it means I don’t love you.”

Other tracks incorporate strings with acoustic guitars or amped-up electrics with horns, each offering guidance from the perspective of a sailor navigating rough waters to a child preparing to brave this mean old world. In the acoustic-based “Breakers Roar,” Simpson uses waves as a metaphor for things that may make a child lose his footing. “Everything is not what it seems,” Simpson warns, but adds, “Open up your heart and you’ll find love all around.”

What elevates A Sailor’s Guide to Earth above even the terrific Metamodern Sounds is its grounding in R&B and soul. Make no mistake: Despite its deeply experimental nature and infusion of strings and horns, this is country music, first and foremost. But with the Dap Kings wailing away behind Simpson’s vocal marriage of Waylon and Otis Redding, several tracks (“Keep It Between the Lines,” “All Around You,” “Call to Arms”) are equal parts funky soul — not unlike the ’70s and ’80s country-soul of, say, Clarence Carter or Delbert McClinton — or straight-up, traditional, horns-heavy rock ’n’ roll. And then there’s the steady-rolling, mid-tempo, ZZ Top-like rocker “Bracing for Impact (Live a Little),” which begins with a throbbing bass line before opening up to buzzing guitars, a sweet Hammond organ, screaming slide guitars, soulful background vocals, and a reminder to his son to “Go out and live a little,” but “Make sure you give a little before you go to the great unknown in the sky.”

One of the online complaints about Simpson’s interpretation of “In Bloom” was that simplicity had been the point of the Nirvana original, and that Simpson had mucked it up by ladling so much production over it. That argument itself is simplistic. It’s not as though Simpson decided to add strings and horns to a random Nirvana song. He was much more deliberate, putting a twist on “In Bloom” with a vintage, Glen Campbell-like arrangement, underscoring his appreciation of all earlier country styles, but through his own spiritual-psychedelic lens. And the song serves the narrative perfectly, providing a warning to baby Simpson of the minefield of mindlessness he will encounter as he reaches his teens. The more complex, brooding arrangement gives a sense of depth, gravity, and universality to lines — “He’s the one who likes all the pretty songs / And he likes to sing along / And he likes to shoot his gun / But he knows not what it means” — that Cobain had tossed off simply to mock the jocks and rednecks of his own tortured youth in tiny Aberdeen, Washington. In Simpson’s interpretation, those lines become an existential lesson.

That sort of dissonance is consistent with other unlikely juxtapositions in Simpson’s catalog. After all, this is the singer who, right off the bat, opened Metamodern Sounds with a song that sounded like simple, vintage Waylon and Willie, but included lyrics referencing Jesus, Buddha, and Simpson’s perspective on the Bible: “Every time I take a look inside that old and fabled book / I’m blinded and reminded of the pain caused by some old man in the sky. / Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, and DMT, they all changed the way I see / But love’s the only thing that ever saved my life.”

And love — not adherence to country music, Nirvana, or any other dogma — is the guiding principle behind A Sailor’s Guide to Earth— MARK KEMP