Published Sep 30, 2019Some touring musicians like to call themselves road warriors, but Sturgill Simpson takes that term to Mad Max extremes on Sound & Fury, the alt-country star's apocalyptic new LP. If the car speeding away from an end-of-days fireball on its cover art wasn't indication enough, the guitars that rev like engines on a lonely dystopic highway sure as hell will be.
Yes, this is a stark departure from his ethereally sincere ballad "Breakers Roar" or his tender cover of Nirvana's "In Bloom" on Simpson's preceding, Grammy winning album A Sailor's Guide to Earth, never mind his Waylon Jennings indebted 2014 LP Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. But that's not a bad thing. Instead, those differences make Sound & Fury Simpson's best release yet, not to mention the most inventive and exciting country album of the year.
Take, for instance, "Make Art Not Friends." "Looking out the window at a world on fire / It's plain to see the end is near" Simpson sings on that key track, stopping short of being on the nose, thanks to the palpable despair in his delivery and, above all, the song's ruggedly prog-y, retro synth-laden, wordless two-minute intro. It sounds like nothing else in his, or any other country star's, repertoire. More end-of-the-world thrills can be found on "A Good Look," where the percussion and guitars throttle forward as Simpson sings with unhinged nihilism: "I write my poems in the dirt with an oily rag / I have to wear a gas mask just so I don't gag" before the lyrics take an even darker and suddenly gruesome turn.
Simpson fills out the rest of the album with go-for-broke, nothing-to-lose combinations of seemingly disparate influences. "Best Clockmaker on Mars," for instance, features the most guttural singing and stadium-sized guitars this side of Soundgarden. Meanwhile, a whistling motif akin the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly permeates "Remember to Breathe," as Simpson sings about "staying off the radar" and confronting the taunting voice in his head. And if all that wasn't enough, the jaunty rockabilly tone of "Last Man Standing" and the whining Police-circa-Synchronicity style bass line and synths on "Mercury in Retrograde" will make you surrender to this album's endlessly eclectic surprises.
That means listeners should strap in and brace themselves for some stylistic hairpin turns. Thankfully Simpson is at the wheel, his Teflon tough voice, high torque guitar playing, and vivid lyrics steadying this thrilling journey through a world on the brink, and ensuring the wheels never come off, which would surely happen with a lesser artist in the driver's seat. (Elektra)