“I hope you don’t grow up believing that you have to be a puppet to be a man.” That’s Sturgill Simpson, former Navy man, singing to his young son on “Call to Arms,” an indictment of America’s warmongering, media-stupefied culture that ends his spectacular mic drop of a third LP. The song storms through a spangled rave-up worthy of Elvis Presley’s TCB band, with verses that suggest Waylon Jennings on a hip-hop kick. “Wearing that Kim Jong-il hat while your grandma’s selling pills stat/Meanwhile, I’m wearing my ‘can’t pay my fucking bills’ hat,” Simpson rants, profiling a nation still rattling swords while its citizens – vets included – get hung out to dry.
His lauded 2014 Metamodern Sounds in Country Music – a set of roadhouse meditations on God, enlightenment and self-medication – lived up to its name. Its follow-up doubles down on ambition. More sonically expansive, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a life-lessons song cycle penned primarily as a letter to his son, inspired by the likes of Marvin Gaye. It begins with “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” a greeting to his newborn child with a string quartet that pivots into an Otis Redding-style burner featuring Brooklyn’s Dap-Kings brass crew (Simpson admired their work with Amy Winehouse). It’s an expression of love and an apology for his life on the road, sung in an explosive country baritone.
But “country” is a limiting term for Simpson, who embodies the word in its most inclusive sense. That’s him snarling “Sugar Daddy,” the nasty blues-boogie theme song to HBO’s Vinyl, a song that doesn’t appear here. His cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” does, however, and it’s the album’s most brilliant WTF moment: Delivered as a slow-building R&B ballad, it has enough traditional twang to give Kurt Cobain’s gun-lust satire a fresh twist, while tweaking the elliptical chorus with an echo of the Bee Gees’ Southern-soul exercise “To Love Somebody.” Subtle, smart and heart-stabbing, it’s one of the best Cobain readings ever.
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Sailor’s Guide is classic album length – nine songs, 39 minutes – and best heard in one sitting; this is Nashville craft less as pop science than as rangy headphone storytelling. That’s clearest on “Sea Stories,” a cautionary tale that involves an enlisted man in Southeast Asia who gets booted from the Navy and ends up back home with a drug habit he regrets, but not completely. “Flying high beats dying for lies in a politician’s war,” he hollers. It’s one of many powerfully defiant moments from an artist who’s just getting started.