|Sturgill Simpson is a country music shaman|
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"Sturgill Simpson is a top-notch miserablist, from the lyrics that pick at scabs to his defeated vocal tone, leaky even when he’s singing at full power. His second album, “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” (High Top Mountain), is a triumph of exhaustion, one of the most jolting country albums in recent memory, and one that achieves majesty with just the barest of parts.
“Time and time again, Lord, I’ve been going through the motions/It’s a means to an end but the ends don’t seem to meet,” Mr. Simpson sings resignedly at the top of “Living the Dream.” Even his quick yelp while singing “going” feels doomed, like a pounce on the gas pedal that still doesn’t start the car.
Eventually, he concludes, he’s got nothing to do except “sit around and wait to die.”
This desperation is both felt and a form of drag, rooted in Mr. Simpson’s deep affinity for and understanding of the tattered parts of country music’s past, be it Johnny Cash’s morbid ramblings or Waylon Jennings’s scratched-up heart.
But while plenty of practitioners of classic country see their work as duty, reflecting a need to protect a style that’s beset at every turn by modernization, Mr. Simpson doesn’t have the feel of a preservationist. He speaks the language because he was raised around it, but his dialect is wholly his own.
Similarly, this album — the title is a nod to Ray Charles’s pioneering 1962 album “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,” a watershed of country-soul crossover — doesn’t make an argument about the direction of the genre as a whole. Its relationship to mainstream country music’s increasingly urban core is tenuous at best, even as a response.
Instead, this is a hermetic work, an act of therapy as much as anything. Compared with his debut album, “High Top Mountain,” from last year, which was lonely and desolate, too, this one feels even more skeptical, and is richer musically with only a few extra brush strokes.
Lyrically, Mr. Simpson is deadpan and bruised. “She left my heart feeling taunted/And my memories all haunted/But it’s her I have to thank for all my songs,” he sings on “Life of Sin.” On “Voices,” his voice is sopping wet, low to the ground and bumpy. He sounds peaceful only on “A Little Light,” which is rich with the influence of Southern gospel and the rare burst of optimism on this album.
As a singer, Mr. Simpson is gifted but in an unflashy way, yanking his drawl into sharp shapes when it’s called for, but mostly content to let his dusty luster do the heavy work. The only places he feels vocally constrained at all — and only slightly at that — is on the pair of covers at the center of the album: Charlie Moore and Bill Napier’s trucker anthem “Long White Line,” and “The Promise,” by the new wave one-hit wonder When In Rome. Mr. Simpson’s respect for the originals seem to prevent him from fiddling too much with their structure. (“The Promise,” in particular, feels indebted to Johnny Cash’s late-in-life career turn remaking unlikely artists’ songs in his inimitable style, right down to Mr. Simpson’s pulpy murmur.)
Part of Mr. Simpson’s skill is that he picks his accompanists carefully. This album was produced by Dave Cobb and recorded live to tape with Mr. Simpson’s touring band: the guitarist Laur Joamets, the bassist Kevin Black and the drummer Miles Miller. Mr. Joamets, especially, is vicious, an ostentatious talent given to filling small holes with outsize filigree. He’s almost as able a narrator as Mr. Simpson, as on the opening of “It Ain’t All Flowers,” which flirts with ZZ Top-esque swamp-blues rock, or on “Long White Line,” which opens with four different guitar approaches in four consecutive passages.
Dissenters like Mr. Simpson have occasionally seeped into country’s center, or near it, in recent years. There was Jamey Johnson, with whom Mr. Simpson shares a black cloud overhead, though he doesn’t quite have the full breadth of Mr. Johnson’s dolor. They also share a predilection for mind-bending substances, as Mr. Simpson shares on “Turtles All the Way Down”: “Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, DMT — they all changed the way I see/But love’s the only thing that ever saved my life.” (Or on “Life of Sin”: “The level of my medicating some might find intimidating.”)
And Mr. Simpson toys with the sort of core-values skepticism recently reintroduced to the country mainstream by Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe and others, singing, also on “Turtles,” about how “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.”
But while big establishment systems discourage Mr. Simpson, his angst is almost wholly internal. And even though he’s fighting himself, he takes pleasure in the challenge. “Woke up today and decided to kill my ego/It never done me no good no how,” he sings on “Just Let Go,” and it sounds like a big old grin."
|Sturgill Simpson featured in the New York Times|