The waves start off bumpy, with whisks of strings striking against each other in nautical unrest, before piano lightens the mood. Then the voice enters — that deep country tenor that sounds almost frightening, given the way it unintentionally conjures the temperaments of the recently departed Merle Haggard. Then everything suddenly shifts course. The country accents lift, and the strings give way to brass, twang, Rhodes piano and a hullabaloo spirit stuck somewhere between late 1960s Elvis and very recent My Morning Jacket.
That’s just the first five minutes of Sturgill Simpson’s sublime and surprising third album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. After a pair of rightly heralded indie efforts produced by Americana hero Dave Cobb, Simpson takes the production reins himself, signs to a major label (Atlantic) and generates a record of family correspondence that largely severs whatever tenuous ties existed between his music and conventional country.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth charts waters more foreign than familiar. Sure, the one-time Lexingtonian sings with the solemnity, tone and conviction of numerous country greats. But his music continues to favor bending tradition more than adhering to it. “Everything is not what it seems,” he sings during Breakers Roar as pedal steel guitar (the record’s most visible country music modifier) trickles down around the strings with almost acidic intrusion. It colors the delicacy of Simpson’s vocals and the song’s forthright sense of heartbreak as well as a level of atmospheric psychedelia that recalls Simpson’s sophomore record, 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.
Hints of Waylon Jennings, still Simpson’s most deep-seeded vocal reference, resurface on Keep It Between the Lines, but the horns and vintage soul/funk bounce, along with the banshee guitars that wind in and out of the groove, forge a path very much of Simpson’s design. “It don’t have to be like father like son,” he sings, referencing the song’s familial outline, although the line is equally reflective of the ties and distances he maintains to his musical heroes.
Count a cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom among the record’s bigger surprises. Simpson transforms the tune into a trippy country requiem before the music bleeds into majestic ’60s R&B. The song’s inherent wariness, however, is left profoundly intact. All Around You, on the other hand, is all Dwight-Yoakam-ish in its vocal feel, with shades of Stax-style horns oozing over the music like a warming balm.
The album-closing Call to Arms sends A Sailor’s Guide to Earth back out to sea, first with more sounds of crashing waves and then a jolting blast of rock and funk that both counters and complements the song’s topical urgency. It’s a restless, genre-jumping exodus into the fascinating stylistic frontier this native Kentuckian now calls home.