Sturgill Simpson’s approach to country music has long mirrored that of his outlaw predecessors. Pioneers like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Waylon Jennings have instilled their songs with narratives outside traditional country perspectives. The difference with Simpson, though, is that while the songwriting heroes of yesteryear pushed at the genre's constraints with left-of-center songs focused on small characters and underdogs, Simpson has spent his career trying to separate the country album from its traditional context.
When Simpson’s wife finally convinced him to return to music full-time in 2012, after a near-decade of occasional amateur open mics in Salt Lake City when his Union Pacific gig would allow, the couple moved to Nashville. A year later, his self-funded, Dave Cobb-produced debut solo LP was released. High Top Mountain climbed halfway up Billboard's Top Country Albums chart, but it wasn’t until the 2014 release of his breakout follow-up, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, that his debut reached its peak position of No. 31.
Metamodern was a swift kick to some of country's more staid tropes, falling more in line with the Jason Isbells of the world rather than more traditional styles of country-rock. The album was also a thorough break from the country classicism of High Top Mountain, but still retained Simpson’s signature snarl and intuitive approach of blending traditional roots ideas with forward-thinking sounds and themes.
The set made the Top Country Albums top 10, and found its way to No. 59 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. It was successful enough to warrant significant buzz in the country community for his follow-up, which would end up moving even further from Nashville's center: A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was an ode from Sturgill to his newborn son, one which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, and found its way to the top of folk, rock, and country albums charts. But while Simpson’s voice was inflected by a pronounced twang on the album, Sailor was largely marked by big-band horns and weepy strings — less a straightforward country album than a doo-wop soul record filtered through a country lens.
Nonetheless, Sailor’s Guide won a Grammy for best country album, and scored a surprise nomination for album of the year — while also seeing Simpson embraced by the Americana community, where he received album of the year at the 2017 Americana Music Honors & Awards. Following that album with a loose-concept rock record accompanying a Netflix anime film is an odd choice on paper, but with Sound & Fury, Nashville’s most unpredictable star turns the idea into another stunning LP.
It starts with footsteps crunching into gravel, a car door opening and slamming shut, perhaps some rain. The radio tunes and tunes, shock jocks fade in and out. An engine revs up. It all sounds pretty country at first, but then the guitar comes in. “Ronin,” the first song off Sound & Fury is a sludgy blues jam, more indebted to the swamp funk of the Muscles Shoals movement than anything out of Nashville.
Sturgill’s voice is nowhere to be found, and throughout S&F, his playing often takes precedence over that rough-and-tumble country voice. Following immediately after, “Remember to Breathe” is a diamond-sharp funk jam, all cavernous drums and a bassline that could get a statue to nod along in approval. The organ steals the show, the quiet underbelly of a quietly cooking stew.
For Simpson fans who bemoaned the cleanliness and crispness of Sailor’s Guide, Sound & Fury is a welcome return to the psychedelic grit with which he infused Metamodern Sounds. The concept behind S&F may turn some listeners away, and the accomapnying anime film might be confusing to some traditionalists, but Simpson has spent his career defying genre and scene norms. It’s an increasingly rare and crucial function he plays, the disruptor and agitator, who also happens to write Grammy-worthy songs with ease.
Sound & Fury closes with “Fastest Horse in Town,” a seven-minute burner that leaves little doubt regarding Simpson’s place in the modern rock canon. The guitars on “Horse” screech and claw, beam down from the sun and scorch the Earth. His voice struggles for breath amongst the cacophony, a desperate situation yielding ecstatic results. It’s a song with epic ambition — the solos are unending, but not a second is wasted, and the double-time outro would be clichéd if it wasn’t so enthralling.
Simpson works with the same tools as a traditional country artist, but where most see a hammer, he sees a blade. He’s the rare mainstream risk-taker who sees his chances rewarded. He was once a fairly straightforward country artist, then got a little weirder and a bit more famous. He polished the edges, won a Grammy, smashed his trophy and used the shards to create the hypnotic messiness of Sound & Fury. This album was the only logical progression for him, in that there’s no inherent logic behind it. It’s the Sturgill Simpson way.
Nashville made Sturgill the musician he is, but four albums in, he’s changed what it means to be a country star. What’s more outlaw than that?