Ever since Sturgill Simpson was anointed the second coming of Seventies country with his 2014 release, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, the 41-year-old Kentucky Navy vet has spent the past half-decade making a show of his discomfort with any such label. Simpson followed up that career-making record with 2016’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, an idiosyncratic Elvis/soul-hybrid song cycle about his son, opened for Guns N’ Roses, livestreamed a performance of himself busking outside the CMA awards, and most recently, convinced his label to help finance a million-plus dollar anime film. That litany of iconoclastic gestures have, of course, only ended up bolstering the very image of old-school Nashville dissident that Simpson says he’s been trying so hard to walk away from in the first place.
Enter Sound and Fury, which is simultaneously the most left-field, decisively non-country offering of Simpson’s career and precisely the record anyone who has been paying any attention to his career over the last several years would have expected him to make. Over ten songs, Simpson leads his tight-knit rock quartet through a super-charged flow of indignant Southern Rock (“Fastest Horse in Town”), strutting disco-boogie (“Sing Along”), and pulsing modern blues (“Best Clockmaker on Mars”) that do away with the typical melodic, structural conventions of country and folk. “A sleazy synth-rock dance record,” he’s called it.
Sound and Fury begins much in the same way as Simpson’s recent live set: with an exploratory psych-blues jam. Establishing the tone on the four minute instrumental “Ronin,” Simpson is smart enough to cede much of the narrative storytelling of Sound and Fury to his guitar. As a guitarist, Simpson is uninterested in conventional guitar god shredding; his playing is curious, fluid and full of wonder. The most thrilling moment on the record, and perhaps in Simpson’s entire catalog, comes nearly two minutes into “Make Art Not Friends,” the album’s shimmering creative introvert anthem centerpiece, when Bobby Emmett’s hypnotic keyboard pattern gives way to a booming staccato guitar riff. “Think it’s time to change up the sound,” as Simpson puts it.
When Simpson does sing, much of what he has to say is similarly self-referential. He’s angstier than ever on Sound and Fury, plagued by his public platform, preoccupied with the way he’s been misunderstood and boxed in by an unforgiving music industry.
Simpson sells such discontent with a fury that makes it seem as though he’s the first rockstar who’s ever had to deal with such problems. He’s “spent the last year burned out of [his] mind.” He’s “been pulled a million ways all at the same time/it’s enough to make anyone go insane.” Success and recognition, so it seems, have not been kind to the singer-songwriter. “Living the dream,” he sings, in an unsubtle reference to the Metamodern fan favorite of the same name on “Mercury in Retrograde,” “makes a man want to scream/Light a match and burn it all down.”
On A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Simpson was relearning to see the harsh world around him through the eyes of his young son. “Bullshit on my TV/Bullshit on my radio,” he sang on the righteous Stax-rave “Call to Arms,” “Hollywood’s telling me how to be me/The bullshit’s got to go.” Three years later, Simpson sounds both defiant and defeated, but mostly just fed up with the world of surface-level fame in which he now finds himself. “Bullshit sells,” he sing-shouts, surrounded by his wall of Telecasters, “don’t you ever forget.