Sturgill Simpson’s breakthrough 2014 album “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” was impressively eclectic in its attempt to redefine country.
For his follow-up, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” (Atlantic), Simpson takes a completely different approach, narrowing his musical palette to old-school country mixed with classic soul and his lyrics to a song cycle of advice for his 2-year-old son.
The opener, “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” sets the stage as Simpson declares, “Hello, my son, welcome to Earth” over a piano accompaniment and swelling strings that sound like country from the ’50s, and then takes a right turn into a joyous soul romp.
Simpson’s advice starts simply. In “Keep It Between the Lines,” Brooklyn’s Dap-Kings lay down a soulful groove, while Simpson rolls out some rules for his son from his own life (“Don’t turn mailboxes into baseballs, don’t get busted selling at 17”) and then some broader encouragement (“Most thoughts deserve two or three more”).
The advice gets more complex, as Simpson thinks of his son growing older. On the first single “Brace for Impact (Live a Little),” he advises, “Make sure you give a little before you go to the great unknown in the sky” over a grinding blues groove that suggests the best way to live a little.
However, his cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” has the biggest impact. Simpson strips the song down to an acoustic ballad essentially, letting the weight of Kurt Cobain’s lyrics — about bandwagon-jumping fans not understanding his message — hit hard. But Simpson twists the song’s meaning by adding his own line — “He don’t know what it means to love someone” — to turn the complaint into even more advice.
Simpson may have seen “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” as a personal album, but it will likely be dramatically more public than his last one.