REVIEW: Sturgill Simpson’s “Sound and Fury” is Cathartic and Seething

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I’m not sure I’m the right guy to do an objective Sturgill Simpson review.  Metamodern Sounds in Country Music came into my life at a low point.  Living overseas, feeling disconnected from home, I put music on the backburner, focused on work.  Sold my guitar; stopped going to shows. But for whatever reason this weird purple album with a space turtle on the cover caught my eye. Bought an acoustic guitar. Things turned around.

Around that time, in 2014, a pair of unrepentant country albums felt like the most rebellious thing a guy could do.  Felt even cooler to be listening to them. Fast forward a few years, and we’re in a golden age of independent country music—Metamodern has become a kind of Nevermind.  Meanwhile, much of popular music has put down the guitar; and a straight ahead rock album called Sound and Fury (New Elektra), full of whole step bends and pentatonic scales, feels out of left-field.

Simpson’s pivot from Country to full-on Rock and Roll feels like the necessary move for a guy hell-bent on laying down his own tracks. Another Country album wouldn’t have cut through the new noise from Nashville the same way it once did.  As more and more acts are hiring steel players again, wearing Nudie suits, referencing Waylon,  it’s starting to feel a little contrived. Though it may be the landscape High Top Mountain excavated, the scene has changed, and it’s clear Simpson wants nothing to do with it. “Gonna ride off into the sunset, while it all burns to hell behind me.”

For many though, Sound and Fury will not be the album they were hoping for.  But those who have seen Simpson perform over the last couple years won’t be surprised.  He and his band have been playing this Hoyt Axton country-funk compilation sound relentlessly: extending fan-favorites like ‘Brace For Impact’ into 10-minute drawn-out guitar solo jams as if they were playing for themselves only to empty bottles on creaky floors. No more train-beat. No more horns. “Think it’s time to switch up the sound.”

This switch makes Sound and Fury all the more interesting. There is virtually no reference to the public’s perception of Simpson’s prior work. Instead, the album opens with instrumental track ‘Ronin’, five minutes of mid-tempo guitar leads following an Alex Jones clip announcing “mounting evidence of a conspiracy of global scale”.  At any moment, the album gives the impression that Simpson would be fine walking away from it all. Living out in the woods in Southeast Tennessee, playing only for himself. “Nobody bother, cause I’m over it all.”

Recorded on vintage equipment at the McGuire Motor Inn in Waterford, Michigan, of all places, it sounds like Simpson, with co-producer John Hill, and long-time band members—Chuck Bartels on bass, Bobby Emmett on keys, and Miles Miller on drums—set out to rupture as many speakers as they could, over two weeks of broken strings, blown tubes and bloody snares.  It feels like they did it too: Simpson’s vocals are set low in the mix, fighting for air over jarring synth, a dense rhythm section and walls of guitar noise that don’t let up for forty minutes straight.

Like the best moments of Simpson’s back catalogue, Sound and Fury is pissed. But his frustration is different this time—a little more inward, indignant even—“some days I hate everything I am” he says on ‘Best Clockmaker on Mars’. “Climbed my way to the top, just to get kicked down the stairs” he follows up with on ‘All Said and Done’.  Something happened post-2017-Grammy win that sent Simpson down one hell of a furious path to write his fastest, most aggressive, groove heavy record yet. While Sound and Fury is just as important as his previous records, its also in a league of its own. What it will signify is yet to be seen. But if past reception to his work is any indication, Sound and Fury could well be the start of a decade of dimed Marshalls.

“Everyone’s trying to be the next someone, but look at me, I’m trying to be the first something” Simpson snarls at the end of closing track ‘Fastest Horse in Town’, before launching into a mean half-time groove so good you’ll want to put your head through a wall.  “Let it happen, remember to breathe.” Time to buy a Telecaster.

Sound and Fury is out on Elektra Records on 27 September 2019.  The companion film will be released simultaneously on Netflix.  https://www.sturgillsimpson.com

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