In my quest to become more familiar with country music, I have found many will say to listen to Sturgill Simpson, even if you do not think you will like country. This makes sense since Simpson has always been a more alternative country artist who can appeal to many different people. That is what made me excited to listen to A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. This was also Simpson’s debut on a large label as the record was released by Atlantic. The only concern for me was that unlike his previous work this would not be produced by Dave Cobb, who made the best country record earlier this year with Southern Family, it would be produced by Simpson himself.
As for the production, I personally think Simpson was successful in creating something unique and memorable, especially for a country record. Despite getting a major label push, we are given sounds that would never appear on typical mainstream country songs. From the strings that open the album on “Welcome to Earth (Pollywag)” to the horns that are used liberally throughout, it is clear Simpson wanted to have fun with this project. He was definitely successful as I think these instruments, especially the horns which I am always a fan of, never overpower him and help to complement what is being sung.
This gets me to my next point, which is Simpson’s vocals. Those unfamiliar with Simpson, or country in general, might have some difficulty with this record on the first listen. The lyrics can be somewhat muffled in Simpson’s heavy accent but even with that there is no denying the power his voice has. As one of the most emotive voices in modern country music, the strong feelings that are behind each of these songs comes through quite well. There is never a moment that I did not feel for Simpson.
The lyrical content here is probably the biggest standout of this record though. The album can loosely be seen as a concept album where Simpson talks to his son and teaches him lessons he has learned through life, all while sticking to the running metaphor of being a sailor at sea.
From the first track we are given a sense of why it is so important that Simpson deliver these messages to his son. It is because he is off on tour and it pains him that his first born child is growing up without a father around. This emotional toll is also clearly present on the next track “Breaker’s Roar,” a song about the depression of loneliness that comes when being on tour, or at sea, and how the pain is all just a dream. It is a sweet moment that sets the tone for the kind of messages that will be delivered to his son.
The album quickly gets upbeat on “Keep It Between the Lines” which is essentially a list of all the stuff that Simpson has done and does not want his son to do. It is a comical moment that displays the double standards most parents have for their children to not make the mistakes they made.
The following track “Sea Stories” feels like it should have been earlier in the tracklist, as it pretty much explains the point of the album but considering the sound of it, it makes sense as to why it is where it is. It is a good sounding song, I just wish it did more for the album’s metaphors.
The biggest surprise for me when I was going through this album was the cover on Nirvana’s famous “In Bloom” that was placed in the middle of it. And thankfully the song does not only fit into the narrative excellently, but it also is a great rendition of the original track. I have heard the original possibly a hundred or so times and I can still look past it and appreciate this version without looking back at the original. I have so much respect for Sturgill Simpson for taking a grunge classic ad reworking it to be a standout on a country album.
The lead single “Brace for Impact (Live a Little),” is definitely one of the catchier tracks, using electric instruments to make the sound especially powerful. We get the message of living life to the fullest but also making sure you spend your time making something great of yourself. The song does overstay its welcome a bit, clocking in at almost 6 minutes, but it is far from a bad song.
“Oh Sarah” is another standout for me, shifting the focus from his son to his wife who he has had to be separated from while on tour. It is a beautiful track that captures the emotion of being separated from the one you love for an extended period of time. It expands the album’s narrative to encompass more of his family which I liked and wish there was more of.
My biggest problem with this album would just be its length. With only 9 tracks, the album is not even 40 minutes long. With the narrative as strong as it is I am surprised that this would not have had at least a few more songs on it. That being said, what we got was still great and proves that 2016 is looking to be a strong year for country music. Even if you do not care for country, check this out and maybe you will be surprised by how much you like it. While I do miss Cobb’s production, Simpson seems to be doing just fine on his own and I am sure his future material will continue to prove this
Best Tracks: Welcome to Earth (Pollywag), In Bloom, Brace for Impact (Live a Little), Oh Sarah, Call to Arms
Worst Track: Sea Stories