The End of the World According to Sturgill Simpson
Most artists end up changing lanes creatively at some point in their careers. Sturgill Simpson takes this approach and blows it wide open on his latest solo outing, Sound & Fury, an album that is as much end of days coda as it is a throwback to heyday 1980s rock with its cutting guitars, keyboards and hard driving percussion. Simpson won hordes of fans for unveiling his own revival of outlaw country in 2013 with High Top Mountain and 2014's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, both inspired, tight solo efforts which showed flashes of musical contrarianism but stayed mainly in its Southern rock and country roots. On the stellar A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Simpson dropped the curtain significantly on his love for genre busting, bringing in horn sections, orchestral meanderings on many tracks and even covering a song by Nirvana. Sound & Fury advances Simpson’s envelope pushing urges several levels, combining sounds many will associate with hard rock acts from decades ago with ample nods to metal and electronica for good measure.
Sound & Fury isn’t a particularly easy listen in the traditional sense, ultimately proving to sound much better after a few turns than during its initial play. But with proper openness to different sounds and taken as a body of musical creation rather than a collection of tracks the album works. In many ways, Sound & Fury would be best suited to be heard at high volume in a car speeding down the highway toward some unknown destination. Starting off with a nearly four minute guitar-laden instrumental (“Ronin”), Simpson takes the listener on a hard driving, often cynical tour of what’s wrong with the world today, successfully creating a sonic post apocalyptic kaleidoscope, channeling parts ZZ Top (“Remember to Breathe”, “Sing Along”), electronic dance (“A Good Look”), Arcade Fire (the wonderfully meandering and moody “Make Art Not Friends”), Rob Zombie (“Best Clockmaker on Mars”), 1990s alternative rock (“Mercury in Retrograde”, “All Said and Done”) and even Black Sabbath (“Fastest Horse in Town”), all while dropping breadcrumbs of traditional Japanese musical undertones throughout. It’s a lot to unpack but worth the effort if one can give it a few listens as the songs gain more nuance after multiple plays. It’s an incomplete assessment to simply link the songs on Sound & Fury to the aforementioned artists since the tracks are more than mere homages to a patchwork quilt of sounds and genres, but the trail to the past is clear and unmistakable. Simpson clearly thinks our world is off the rails and not likely to right itself anytime soon. On Sound & Fury, we’re all along for the ride.
Simpson’s relationship with country music has always been a complicated one despite his first two albums--he consistently strays from the standard genre fare, infusing his performances with a variety of influences well outside the normal chart topping country artist. Sound & Fury will surely alienate many traditional country fans and Simpson probably likes it that way, acting as a modern day musical ronin free to create whatever he wants, however he wants. Distinguishing himself further from his peers, Simpson collaborated with noted filmmaking stewards Jumpei Mizusaki (“Batman Ninja”), Takashi Okazaki (“Afro Samurai”), Masaru Matsumoto (“Starship Troopers: Traitors of Mars”), Michael Arias (“The Animatrix”), Henry Thurlow and Arthell Isom, and Koji Morimoto (“Akira”) to create a full length short film to accompany the album, one which blends the visceral, dynamic animation of anime while visually conveying the End of Days mood so prevalent on the music album. The film itself sets any perception of Simpson on its head, showing him to have a keen appreciation for both the visual and audio impact his music can have on an audience while pushing his creative direction vastly ahead of any of his country music contemporaries. If Taylor Swift changed lanes from country to pop years ago, Simpson set fire to the highway and stormed ahead to the next country.
The film features sword-swinging samurai with robotic warriors, semi-nude dancers and heinous villains, set in a post apocalyptic world worthy of any Mad Max film. The blood runs swiftly and often while modified vehicles and mechanized weaponry wreak havoc on the bleak landscape throughout the film’s 41-minute run time. But through it all, the storytelling is compelling, offering characters both distinct and memorable, while the visuals are varied and consistently astounding. Simpson’s Sound & Fury film and album will likely confuse some already bewildered fans seeking more straight ahead interpretations of his music but artistically, Simpson goes for it on this hybrid project and largely wins, giving listeners a clear case study for how one can push previous creative boundaries while making definitive statements about a wide range of topics besides the standard lyrical fare and subject matter found in many genres today.