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.
Another choice on “Metamodern Sounds” that shows exactly how good Simpson’s songwriting ears are: a cover of When In Rome’s 1988 synthpop hit “The Promise.” It’s an excellent bit of songwriting obscured by corny production and some remarkably bad vocal harmonizing, not unlike a ton of other fun but forgettable new wave dance songs from the ‘80s. It’s as if Simpson rescued it from the secondhand store and took it home to replace its working parts and coat it in a clean wood finish. His normally steely voice turns soft and quivery, which better suits the song’s domestic strife, and suddenly you’ve got an earnest country ballad where once was a cheesy, euphoric number unheard since your parents’ prom.
One more point before we wrap this thing up: “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” is an especially groovy, low down record, especially when you compare it to the uptempo honky tonk of Simpson’s debut from last year, “High Top Mountain.” Songs like “It Ain’t All Flowers” and “Living the Dream” do some fun, loose stuff with their bass play you don’t usually hear in tighter country productions, and I suspect they’re kinda why this record sounds so distinct.
And even after all this, Simpson’s got room to improve, which he acknowledges on “Life of Sin”: “the boys and me are still workin’ on the sound.” I love that. It’s like saying “Stick around, and maybe you’ll hear something even crazier.” That’s an attitude I find incredibly exciting from a guy who’s already demonstrated both the ability and desire to work way out on the genre’s fringes, because those tend to be the artists who help forge new paths for the mainstream to tread.
Matt Carney is an editor for NewsOK and writes the pop music column for LOOKatOKC. He operates a Twitter account.