It wasn’t too long ago when Grammy-winner Sturgill Simpson seemed to be resigned to remaining a country artist for the rest of his life. If he didn’t seem puffed up with country pride, he, at least, offered tentative hope to the self-appointed guardians of the genre that he wouldn’t defect for greener sonic pastures anytime soon.
“Some people will say, and have said, that I’m trying to run from country,” Simpson explained in a 2016 interview with Rolling Stone Country. “But I’m never going to make anything other than a country record. As soon as I open my mouth, it’s going to be a country song.” Interestingly enough, that quote was given during an interview promoting the release of the Kentucky-native’s soul- and rock-leaning LP A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.
Fast forward to the present, and Simpson has been singing and speaking a different tune. His new record, the searing, bombastic, psych-rock Sound & Fury, is as stunning as it is decidedly un-country. Not even the presence of Simpson’s vocal twang can wrest these 10 tunes out of the garage-rock death grip and return them to anything remotely resembling country pastures. How many country albums are accompanied by Japanese anime videos? None that we can think of. To coincide with the release of the record, Netflix will premiere an animated film, directed by featuring videos to accompany each of the songs from Sound & Fury.
In all fairness, the outspoken singer has been up-front about what fans should expect from the record. Following an appearance on a panel at Comic-con in July, it was widely reported that Simpson said he “came out with a really sleazy, steamy rock n roll record. It’s definitely my most psychedelic,” said Simpson. “And also my heaviest.”
It’s important to note that Simpson’s divergence from the more traditional country sounds of his earliest solo records, High Top Mountain and Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, isn’t as drastic of a turn as it might seem upon an initial spin of Sound & Fury. Tunes such as the rhythmically tight “Remember to Breath,” the funk-inflected “Good Luck,” the fuzzy “Last Man Standing,” and the atmospheric, Pink Floyd-meets-Stranger Things “Make Art Not Friends” could be cordial neighbors with songs from A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, if the extreme synth and keyboard flourishes were replaced with a bit of brassy horn soul.
But to be fair to this satisfyingly cohesive collection, it also has plenty in common with rock titans the Black Keys, Black Mountain and Black Sabbath. Throw in a bit of White Stripes and Pink Floyd and there’s a fantastically mixed up painter’s palette for Simpson to work from. The reverb-heavy opening track, “Ronin” is a trance-inducing instrumental track, while the final song of the set, “Fastest Horse in Town,” is a pounding, triumphant seven-minute epic with a psychedelic drone sure to blast any set of speakers it jumps out of.
And contrary to what he has said in the past, Simpson’s signature vocal twang is well-suited for this otherworldly excursion. The synth-heavy “Mercury in Retrograde,” and the frenetic, quick-tempo “Sing Along” layer sheets of self-described scuzz on just thick enough to be provocative without drowning the tunes.
Simpson is an artist at the top of his power when he follows his restless muse. There will surely be plenty of listeners upset he’s put his country cape in the closet for the time being, but really, he’s simply doing what we all certainly hope for in our own jobs. He’s doing what he wants, when he wants, how he wants, and doing it as well as anyone else.