A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is the third album by the American country and rock artist Sturgill Simpson. Just as his second album differed in style and feel from its predecessor, so is his third much different from the second one.
His debut album, High Top Mountain (also the name of his independent record label) was very much a country album and a good one at that. The second album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music already started to steer away from the classic country feel heard on High Top Mountain, incorporating some psychedelic touches and featuring our very own Laur Joamets on the second axe. The result was an album that surely rocked and was a much more powerful and enjoyable listening experience whilst also remaining true to country sounds, delivering what the title pretty much promised.
With A Sailor’s Guide to Earth Simpson has made it clear that he does not want to record the same songs over and over again. Stepping further away from country music and with an extended line-up, we get something that is more a rock album with a touch of soul. Though country is not forgotten here as well, the reminders being the lap steel guitar which is heard almost throughout the record and of course Simpson’s own voice which itself is quite recognisable.
As the title suggests the album holds a nautical theme which is not only found in the lyrics but also presented through sound. But the sea is not the most important theme here. The album was written for Simpson’s wife and his first born child, who was introduced to this earth two years ago and to whom Simpson now gives his guidance to. It’s his first album not released on his independent label but instead by Atlantic Records. Thankfully this did not mean someone else being the conductor here, Simpson is very much in charge and free to produce how he sees it. It is also very fitting that instead of Dave Cobb who produced his first two records, Simpson himself is the producer here, it being a highly personal album. It also performed really well in the charts reaching No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart, quite the feat considering the trends in today’s popular music scene.
“Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” kicks the song cycle off with a rather quiet note with an introductory piano. This immediately gives you the sense that this album is different from its predecessors. Right away he addresses his son (the pollywog) and the song is centred on the hardships of being a parent who is not always able to be around. The first half of the song features a string arrangement which about halfway through the song is stopped by a brass section, morphing the song quite effectively into a soul number and is sure to make you tap your feet.
Next up is the calmest song in the cycle “Breakers Roar”. No overdriven guitars here, it’s a quiet and quite melancholic number. It seems to be about the blues surrounding a family man who spends a lot of his time on the road, yet the performance is so tranquil that it all seems still seems manageable after all.
More rock/soul/country ahead! With support from The Dap-Kings we arrive at true soul country – “Keep It Between the Lines”. A quite funky and catchy number that preaches some true advice to the Simpson youngling. The music is very enjoyable to listen to with many different instruments to be heard but the production makes sure none of them are taken for granted. We can also finally hear a guitar solo and it’s utterly satisfying too. Urging his son to “keep it between the lines”, Simpson tells the boy not to act as he himself once has but instead to keep clear of the hard stuff and learn from his father’s mistakes, also not to worry too much about the small stuff.
Next up we have got some country music! Considerably the most country sounding moment on the album is the song “Sea Stories” and that’s exactly what is heard here. It is Simpson reminiscing about his tenure in the U.S. Navy and his very personal experiences there. He fits a whole evening’s worth of stories into three minutes and it’s only fitting he has to assure him of his tale’s authenticity: “I’ve got sea stories/They’re all true/Might seem a little bit far-fetched/But why would I lie to you”. He also expresses his regret of some lost time after being kicked out of the Navy but there’s also some relief in not taking part in a conflict(s) he has no belief in:” But flying high beats dying for lies/In a politician's war”.
One smooth transition later we arrive at “In Bloom”, this Nirvana cover allows Simpson to showcase his arranging skills. No angst here but rather reminiscence of his own young age and a quite beautiful take on the classic song. Simpson thought the song would fit the setting of the album as this is music he himself listened to being much younger. In addition to the unique arrangement, the man also seems to have misremembered (possibly on purpose) the chorus a bit:” He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs/And he likes to sing along/And he likes to shoot his gun/But he don't know what it means/Don't know what it means to love someone”, yet I don’t see this being problematic, perhaps it makes this version more personal.
No smooth transition here, the one single from the album “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)” starts off with single bass notes and sets the stomping mood for the coming (almost) six minutes. It’s a pleasant listen and a fitting single from the album, being a little less personal and the music being more rock oriented with a touch of psychedelia added to the mix. The lyrics here are rather existential in nature and don’t necessarily have the immediate feeling that they were written just for one person.
Next up we’ve got ourselves a duo of ballads, one for his son and for his wife. “All Around You” is a father’s promise of unconditional love and here Simpson even touches upon a religious subject (though briefly). Real nice song, I bet his two year old son likes it too.
“Oh Sarah” is for his wife. This one is not actually new but was released by his previous group Sunday Valley six years earlier. The song has lost some guitar in the six years but both takes are fantastic. It’s a beautiful and sincere declaration of love. I bet his wife likes the song as well.
In the end of the album we are reminded once more that we are still out on the sea. “Call to Arms” is quite possibly the best thing on the album, a real tour de force where we can hear the whole band just going at it (must be a hoot played live). A great guitar riff, great horn section, great lyrics. Here Simpson goes almost into a rant, listing up lots he sees wrong with this very world he welcomes his son into in the beginning of the song cycle (or is it just good advice?). And we get to hear more of Lil’ Joe ripping it up. A very nice example on how to end an album, fabulous.
All in all this album makes me glad to see that such a good songwriter as Sturgill Simpson hasn’t presented himself as some static singer-songwriter who is bound to the limits of one certain genre, though some who saw him as a saviour of country music might be saddened by that very fact. I urge everyone who has an interest in any sort of rock ‘n’ roll music give this one a listen, it’s a well made, natural and sincere collection of songs and thoughts.
I really like it.