At what point does the outsider become part of the mainstream? Sturgill Simpson has forever been an outsider on each of his albums. His self funded debut album High Top Mountain was old school country at a time when Bro-Country was starting to take over. The follow up Metamodern Sounds in Country Music was pushed out of the genre altogether and gave Simpson the Americana label as an artist. He was even still an outsider on his Grammy winning and Album of the Year nominated 3rd album A Sailor’s Guide To Earth with its Americana version of In Bloom having reviewers and fans alike baffled.
Perhaps a bluesy, boogie rock, synth filled album accompanied by a big budget Netflix anime film is just another time that Sturgill Simpson showcases how much of an outsider he is; it’s just this time it’s from within the mainstream.
It manages to sound absolutely nothing like his previous albums, or anything else on radio for that matter, but is incredibly listenable from start to finish.
Opening with the sounds of a car radio picking up broadcasts about Government conspiracies it’s obvious from a few seconds in that Sound & Fury is going to contain both of those things front and centre. The rolling drums of opener Ronin against a distorted guitar solo isn’ just ‘like’ the opening credits to a movie, in this case it literally is. Personally I think Sound & Fury works better as an album than a film, but the creation of both aspects can be heard in every note here. Simpson isn’t doing anything by half across these 10 tracks.
It’s once the album gets going proper with a run of unexpected and memorable tracks that lasts through the first half of the album that had me sold. Remember To Breathe is full of cinematic synth and piercing flute straight out of a Samurai film, while A Good Look and stand-out Sing Along go off into crashing rock and funk, while remaining catchy as hell throughout. Lyrics like ‘Tell ’em to carve my name in the bar stool, baby/You know I’m gonna be here a while’ sound like classic rock’n’roll hits thanks to Simpson’s unique delivery, while every song here sees him delve into his thoughts on fame, the music industry, and ownership of art. ‘Why you gettin’ pissed ’cause we’re getting discovered/Are you talking all this shit just to get on the cover’ sums it up nicely.
Songs crash into each other like the changing of a radio station, making the changes of style and instrumentation feel somehow less jarring because they are more jarring. Honestly it makes more sense than it sounds. It makes Sound & Fury an impossible album to place in a genre, you’ll find it in the Americana/Country section at HMV mind, but there’s very little on here that relates to those genres at all. Instead it’s daring and unexpectedly thought provoking music.
Make Art Not Friends and Mercury In Retrograde are deeply personal stories from Simpson, but here they become part of a mad world of visuals and sounds.
Sound & Fury is the sound of an artist just creating without the needless baggage that can come with it.
The fact that much of the lyrics touch on this needless baggage feels like a natural conclusion to come to; ‘They come backstage and on my bus/Pretending to be my friend/Shaking hands behind grandstands/All wearing the same old grin’. The closing reprise of Remember To Breathe’s cinematic instrumentation only solidifies Sound & Fury’s place as one of the most unexpectedly consistent records I’ve heard in years.
Sturgill Simpson is an artist who made it into the mainstream for a fleeting moment, his Grammy award winning speech at the pre-telecast ceremony was simply the line ‘I guess the revolution will not be televised’; who after not being invited to the CMAs that same year busked outside the red carpet for donations to charity while calling out the genre’s lack of accountability for issues with gun control, police brutality and LGBT rights. He’s also an artist who has released one of 2019’s greatest albums while remaining firmly outside that place he never really wanted to get into in the first place.
Words by Sam Atikins.