Waylon Jennings on psychotropics. That seems to be the general consensus on “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,” the second LP from 35-year-old Kentucky crooner Sturgill Simpson, which hit stores last week to fanfare from an odd medley of publications (NPR, The Fader, Pitchfork) that don’t often spill ink over roots music. But general consensuses tend to form around easily observed, surface-level stuff that often fails to do its subject justice. Let’s dig in a little deeper than that.
Yes, Sturgill Simpson’s rich, tanned baritone isn’t far off old Waylon’s and yes, lead single “Turtles All the Way Down” mentions the alterations to human perception brought on by psilocybin and LSD, but to get hung up on these is to miss what we’ve really got here in “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,” which is a heartfelt and wonderfully imperfect record from a limitless talent who’s still getting a feel for the empty space around him. Now, when making a country album’s about the least cool thing you could possibly do in the music world, he’s made an especially earnest one that handles older styles like a pro while forging a groovier, acidic one all its own. When was the last time you heard the words “progressive country album”? Because that’s what we’ve got on our hands here, as well as a terrific songwriting talent who could have an enormous career ahead.
Simpson clearly cares about country music, which is amazing considering it’s been mostly dudes singing about mudflaps and beer brands over a homogenous soft-loud-soft-rock sheen for over a decade. Here he’s pretending that never happened. “Life of Sin” follows the deliciously trippy opener “Turtles All the Way Down” with some textbook Texas Roadhouse revving, but it co-opts only the outlaw sound, not the persona that came with it. The subject matter —an identity crisis— is relatively mundane, but all Simpson’s pitch-perfect growling and spectacular ability to turn a phrase keep you on your toes.
“Voices” is another song here that distinguishes Simpson from the current pack of male country artists, which comes from a place of skepticism and social awareness that’s much more Bob Dylan than Willie Nelson. He flips a cliché to capture the current economic climate for writers and musicians without getting too specific: “Well a picture’s worth a thousand words, but a word ain’t worth a dime.” That ability to capture the zeitgeist in plainspoken language and memorable melody is a rare gift among songwriters.
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