Sound & Fury (Warner)
Sturgill Simpson won’t be winning his second Best Country Album Grammy with this album. Oh no.
To be fair, no one would be more horrified if he did than Simpson who might, to paraphrase a former country music rebel, Johnny Paycheck, tell them to take this trophy and shove it.
That first Grammy winner, 2016’s A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, expanded the notion of country music with some art rock shapes, Nirvana-done-as-soul and an overall message to his son to find the slivers of light among the shit he would find, and along the way was also nominated for Album Of The Year.
Its predecessor, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music was nominated for Best Americana Album while dripping with drug, emotional breakdown and spaced-out living references, to give you a sense of the scope of Simpson’s stealth-from-leftfield entry to mainstream attention.
Little of that matters here as Sound & Fury, a title so apt it’s as if the cliché was created for him, is Simpson letting loose a full hard rocking, blues-beating, Texas boogieing, guitar-heroics, quasi-prog beast in the same room as a bunch of synths and a producer – that would be Simpson himself - not afraid of throwing electronica around the place.
Oh yes, and a mood of taking no shit – slivers of light or not – from anyone so offering after the gallery of unpleasant industry types he’s had the good fortune to encounter. (Unrelated, do you think the local record company have any idea at all what do to with this artist? Yeah, same.)
When you hear the electronic-enhanced, highway disco groove of Sing Along and A Good Look, you can’t help but picture some heavy-bearded men (and a man called Beard) watching an Eliminator zoom past them. The ZZ Top references are so blatant as to be outright fun and, in Last Man Standing, Simpson throws in some rockabilly into the muscle blues to remind you that The Top, like another influence visible here, T-Rex, had roots on both sides of the blues/rock line.
Make Art Not Friends on the other hand feels equal parts early Roxy Music and Neil Young, the synth and jagged guitar partners but not necessarily boon companions. That discord works as the sneaky counterpoint to the old school vocal melody, the grit to the smooth.
Mercury In Retrograde, the closest to a country form on the record, plays with the clip-clop rhythm and twangy vocals by offering a quasi-machine underbeat and then various layers of synthesisers, all while Simpson takes a bite or three out of “sycophants” and other moral failures.
Those songs are mere surprises though; what you might call the shocks come in the heavy heavy bravado of songs such as Best Clockmaker On Mars and the album’s epic closer, Fastest Horse In Town, or the menacing desert rock of the album’s opener, Ronin, which slow turns its distortions to let you know from the get-go that you’re not in the Grand Ol’ Opry anymore.
Best Clockmaker On Mars breaks out from a opening of church bells and touch of church organ, with some double-beef guitars you’d not be surprised to hear on a Queens Of The Stone Age album, as Simpson sings down a tunnel and provokes a squeal or two of feedback in response. The first solo is a synth one, more space opera than space rock; the second solo is a dirty and thrilling guitar.
Those are mere tasters for the prog-meets-grunge, seven-minute Fastest Horse In Town which tonally (angry, direct, vocals blended into the soundscape) as much as musically (guitars in waves rather than riffs, bass as a bludgeon, the song spiralling further and further), works as the logical endpoint of this bracing and excitingly physical album.
Forget the country Grammy, Simpson should be in the front row for the rock trophy, ready to claim it.