Album Review | Sturgill Simpson Sound and Fury
Words by Thomas Rutherford
There has always been an otherness to Sturgill Simpson, a disregard for convention. Since his debut, he’s been a modern outlaw, wrapped in lead, smoke, and whiskey yet introspective and deeply vulnerable. He has never embraced this more than on his latest album Sound and Fury, simultaneously a searing celebration of living beyond boundaries and a thoughtful rumination on the hurt and the pain that causes a person to live in such a way. Once considered an outlaw country artist, with comparisons drawn between him and legends such as Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson, here, however, Sturgill smashes apart genre convention until all that’s left is the outlaw. And he’s never been better.
The album begins with radio static, roaring engine. Soon, a distortion heavy, yet laconic riff rolls in. This is music born of dust, made for hard sunlight, hot asphalt. The song is called “Ronin.” In ancient Japan, a Ronin was a samurai with no master, a wanderer, mercenary. Theirs was a life of endless, dust-laden roads that led only deeper into the great red sun, a life on the fringes, a life of blood. The concept of the Ronin pervades the entire album, and this opening song, completely instrumental, burning with screeching, psychedelic guitar from Sturg himself, droning drums accented by a somewhat inconsistently opened hi-hat by drummer Miles Miller, sets the tone for the entire album. A Ronin was once bound by duty, but what is a person when duty has forsaken them? A person is free. Truly free. This is Sturgill relishing his freedom, him driving into that great red sun, destination uncertain but vision clear, an old life in the rearview. This is him saying goodbye to what once was and barreling headfirst into what will be.
With change, with newfound freedom, a certain level of anxiety is inevitable. That great open sky, the road and all its secrets, they are daunting entities, alive with possibility and the fear that accompanies such a concept. Sturgill deals with this anxiety on the next song, “Remember to Breathe.” It begins casual enough, featuring the first appearance of keyboardist and album MVP Bobby Emmet. He comes in with a line reminiscent of the soundtrack from a Kurosawa movie, further solidifying the lone warrior motif. Sturg is not far behind, bringing with him the first lyrics of the album. “Going out at night/ Just to see what I can find.” The line can be interpreted in multiple ways. At first listen, it’s just what he is doing. Going out in search of something. One thinks of smoke-filled bars, sad country songs, cheap whiskey. But, when the scope of things is understood, one begins to realize he is singing about his new situation, his new freedom. Going out into that black night, uncertain of what it holds for him. The chorus is a reminder. “Let it happen/ Remember to breathe.” The first chorus remains laconic, casual, a calm reminder to roll with the fear, to let it happen rather than fight it. But the middle of the song is broken up by a screeching interlude of guitar and keys and the listener can hear his grip slipping, the fear winning. The chorus after that becomes much more desperate, there’s more fight to it. The song is then ended abruptly by radio static before transitioning into the next, the bouncing “Sing Along.”
The album’s first songs reflect Sturgill himself, his feelings about his own work and the path that he has set for himself. But the next look outwards, look to the factors that set him on that path. “Sing Along,” the album’s first single, is a dancing rumination on coming to terms with heartbreak. It points to the initial hopelessness that comes with a broken heart. Though the song is incredibly upbeat, lyrically, it does not shy from the darkness that comes with such feelings. Driven by pulsating keys, Sturgill sings about words cutting deep, about carving his name into a barstool, until the chorus, a lamentation of loneliness, “I can’t go on/ Living alone/ Now that you’re gone.” The song ends with a seamless transition into the next, “A Good Look.” While “Sing Along” speaks to a deeply personal issue, “A Good Look” points more towards society as a whole. It is an indictment of superficiality, of choosing aesthetic over art. The chorus goes “Everybody’s worried about a good look/ What they need to be worried about’s a good hook.” The song is easily the album’s most danceable which points to an interesting idea of contrast first introduced in “Sing Along.” These are upbeat, grooving songs that at first glance don’t necessarily denote the darkness that hides underneath the grooves and the synth. It reflects the ideas that Sturg is putting forward, that society is focused on aesthetic rather than content, that people don’t listen close enough. These two songs work together to give a kind of explanation to what seems to be Sturgill’s personal philosophy.
The album’s next song explores this philosophy, summarizing it in its title, “Make Art, Not Friends.” A departure from the anger and mania of the album’s first four songs, this one just sounds sad, a result of hard lessons learned the hard way. It takes a second to get going, beginning with a slow lead in by Emmet reminiscent of Pink Floyd. Miller and bassist Chuck Bartels really shine on this one. The drums hit hard, providing needed guidance to the song’s meandering quality while Bartels rolls along, going where the song takes him. But, Sturgill’s distorted, yet somehow gentle, comforting riffs, the impossible to get out of your head hook, and Emmet’s discordant keys truly take precedence. It deals with a range of emotion. Throughout the first two verses and choruses, it is deeply melancholic as Sturg sings “Over the game/ Rather be alone/ Think I’m gonna just stay home/ And make art not friends.” With the end of the second chorus, Sturgill sings these last words with more resolve, and the riff gets a little darker, a little meaner and Emmet comes in with those keys, bringing that anger back with him. But Sturgill breaks it up quickly, going back into the chorus, only this time, it sounds brighter, like looking out the window of a dark room and seeing a sunny day and resolving to let that sun wash over you. It sounds like hope. Acceptance. Though that loneliness exists and can ravage a soul, when a person has words and music, they’re never truly alone. Nothin’ wrong with staying home.
Sturgill then turns this acceptance into pure, ferocious determination. “Best Clockmaker on Mars” takes no time at all demonstrating this. It burns the melancholy to ash with its powerful, almost hungry sounding guitars. And though the riff sounds mean at first, there doesn’t seem to be any true anger in it, just resolve. This is pain turned to power. When I first heard this one, I was pretty quickly reminded of Alan Moore’s graphic novel, Watchmen. In it, Dr. Manhattan, the most powerful being to ever exist, becomes fed up with humanity and isolates himself on Mars. There, he creates great structures that resemble clockwork and decides to make a new world for himself. This fits exactly with the theme of this song. Sturgill’s fed up with the world he was given so now it’s time for him to make his own, to take metal and clay from the ground and build. It’s time for him to “wake up every day and be the best clockmaker on Mars.”
Following the eruption, a different kind of determination. This one, clear-eyed, assured, yet weary. “All Said and Done” starts with keys that sound like stars twinkling over a revolution. The drums are light, but steady, like footsteps on a dirt road. This is looking to the horizon music, a song for when the road is long, but the path clear. Sturgill’s voice sounds heavy, sings of what he’s left behind. Confusion, anger, but love as well. It’s a song of hard truths, of doing what must be done. He wanders through the dust, ever forward, forward. Until he decides to light the world on fire. After those twinkling keys and the chorus, Sturg comes in with a solo pulled straight from his soul. Flames rush around the song, until it is consumed by them. It sounds sad, tired, but resolved, the cry of a hard journey nearly done. Sturgill knows where he’s going and knows what he has to do to get there.
Next, comes a good bit of fun. “Last Man Standing” starts with almost industrial sounding drums before giving way to an impossible to hate rockabilly riff. Here, the Nashville really shines through. Being a Nashville native myself, it’s refreshing to hear this type of music done right in a way that only a few others do. The song is all blues and rockabilly with a nice hint of cowboy thrown in. A nice bit of levity amongst all the fury.
Following this much needed bit of lightness comes a candid rumination on celebrity and how fame has affected the way people interact with Sturgill. “Mercury in Retrograde” is a big “fuck you” to the fake people that just want to hop on the bandwagon. The song features one of the most interesting lines on the album, “To all the haters that want to be in my band/ Sorry, boys, the bus is plumb full.” This line denotes a few things. One, it fits with the theme of the song. People just wanting something from Sturg, to tag along, piggyback off his success. But the most interesting thing to me is that it tells the listener that Sturgill is not truly alone. Coming from an album that serves as a celebration of individuality, that speaks so much about loneliness and pain and otherness, this line shows that Sturgill has people in his life. He just has enough of them. His bus is full. These are people he knows and cares about and loves. There is no more room for new people, for hangers on, sycophants. So, while Mercury might be in retrograde and Sturgill’s world is changing, this road he is burning down, he does not burn alone.
Finally, we arrive at the final stop. “Fastest Horse in Town” is lean, mean, down and dirty rock and roll. With chaotic, droning fuzz, screaming riffs throughout every measure, heavy drums ringing through the soul, the bass rolling, rolling, rolling, this is Sturgill Simpson full circle. This is catharsis. This is fire and brimstone. This is sound and fury. The song encapsulates everything the album is about. It is unlike anything Sturg has put forward previously. His voice wails, echoing across the track as he sings “Everyone wants the be the next something/ Look at me/ I’m trying to be the first something.” That’s it right there. He is molding himself into something new, something never before seen. He wants to make his mark in this world, and he wants to do it his way. The song ends with cohesion, as the droning and the soloing begin to match up to form what may be one of the most badass parts of a song I’ve heard in sometime. It is balls to the wall, in your face rock and roll. Pure and simple. Not to be forgotten, Emmet returns with soaring synth to close the song out as the band jams out into oblivion. A truly fitting end to an incredible album.