The short version: Sturgill Simpson delivers a pointed criticism toward the music industry, though I’d argue this album falters in its execution.
- Favorite tracks: “Remember To Breathe,” “All Said And Done,” “Sing Along,” “Ronin,” “Fastest Horse In Town”
- Least favorite track: “Best Clockmaker On Mars”
The long version: Even with the buzz of a new album and accompanying anime film, Sturgill Simpson feels like an afterthought these days.
And, believe it or not, that’s not a negative remark I’m making about him; it’s a commentary on his actions over, well … his entire career. For as much as attention as he still draws from fans, you can tell Simpson no longer wants that. From trying to burn every bridge with the country music community (because if he didn’t, of course country radio would play his material anyway … yeah, that’s it!) to saying in a recent interview that, had he won the Grammy award for A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, he would have handed the award to Beyoncé and walked out of the building (the best choice for those respective albums, to be honest).
Musically, though, one could even argue Simpson burned that bridge a long time ago, even though A Sailor’s Guide To Earth wasn’t nearly as huge of a departure from country music as some fans claim. I’d say to just throw out expectations for Simpson from now on, but if that’s an alarming statement for anyone in 2019, they haven’t been paying attention. And, after leaving Atlantic Records and turning his love of Japanese culture into an anime film and subsequent soundtrack in SOUND & FURY, it does make one wonder who’s left, in terms of his fandom. As already mentioned, country fans wanting another High Top Mountain left years ago, and for everyone else … well, SOUND & FURY may be a soundtrack, but it needs to stand as its own work of art without the help of the film, so how did it turn out?
Honestly, perhaps it’s just a cause of burnout from never knowing what Simpson is going to do next, but despite delivering a fairly potent adrenaline rush in SOUND & FURY, this also scans as his least interesting album to date in nearly every department. Even as someone who never bought into the Simpson fandom, yet still liked his work, SOUND & FURY is a good, genre-bending slice of synthwave and rock, but it’s the kind of project, too, where Simpson feels burned out both creatively … and literally.
There’s no easy starting discussion point with this album, but one criticism that easily carries over from past Simpson works is the vocal production. Yes, enunciation is the most cited issue for Simpson, but the larger issue comes in wondering why he’d choose to bury one of his best assets! His thick Kentucky accent may have always been hard to get used to, but his emotional range is damn near unmatched, often finding him reflective of his past through existential musings and other forms of strife. Here, that does show itself in the content (albeit in a much different way, but more on that later), but the vocal production is at its most exasperating when Simpson chooses to bury his voice between feedback and reverb. Sure, he’s fairly powerful wailing on “Best Clockmaker On Mars” and “Fastest Horse In Town,” but he can’t even cut through to deliver the hooks on those tracks.
Granted, that sense of drowning is likely intentional, given the lyrical content. Some fans have cited SOUND & FURY as Simpson’s way of shoving a giant middle finger in the face of the country music industry, and while I’d argue against that completely, even in terms of instrumentation and production, the larger point is that Simpson is giving a giant middle finger to everyone: wannabe critics like me; actual journalists; fans who want another stone-cold country record from him; fans who hold him to a God-tier status, expecting brilliance that even he’ll admit he can’t always deliver; to, last but oh so certainly not least, the music industry in general. SOUND & FURY is a soundtrack, alright – a soundtrack to one’s own demise.
Yet, when digging into the content itself, I’d even argue the lyrics have taken a slide in quality compared to past Simpson works. Part of that extends toward the content being incredibly one-dimensional and uniform (Simpson fucking hates the music industry), but also in how it’s told. Sure, there’s something sinister and appealing about the thought of the industry turning him into a literal machine on “Remember To Breathe,” or simply letting that anger fly on “Sing Along,” “Make Art, No Friends,” “Best Clockmaker On Mars,” oh, screw it, every track aside from the strong instrumental track, “Ronin,” but when Simpson leans into theatricality, metaphors and Peter and Paul comparisons to the industry on “Good Look,” it feels like we get temper-tantrums over details and actual reflections – as if even Simpson is worried about a good look over a good hook.
And trying to imagine it from Simpson’s mindset is even worse when you consider that, outside of his music, he also weaves in politics that aren’t just leftist, but outright conspiracy theory territory. That’s a general criticism, too, over a personal statement, and relates back to this album. With Simpson convinced that everyone is out to get him, like on “Mercury In Retrograde,” and that he’s a lone wolf victim of the industry, it scans more as self-aggrandizing, which, yes, is honest, but not all that appealing to listen through.
On the other hand, it also speaks to his frustrations with the crumbling world around him, enough to where it affects his art and his mindset on “All Said And Done” and “Fastest Horse In Town.” Even if he does want to “make art and not friends,” one listens through the album wondering if he still can (which does bring up that old, interesting quote about him only making five albums, with this being the fourth in that series, and, honestly, the potential beginning of the end). And the only closure provided on the final track, “Fastest Horse In Town,” is that, yes, Simpson is aware how stupid it is to throw his success away, but saying he doesn’t care is the understatement of the year.
For an album, too, where the biggest draw has been its sound, it’s arguably the least noteworthy element of this entire album. Seriously, the structures are rooted in country and southern-rock, just with a different approach in actual execution, with a heavier focus on developed, pummeling melodic grooves. Yet, along with cackling, fuzzed-out electric guitars with some nice smolder to them, the analog synths are just here to provide an uneasy, howling tension for the delivery of the content. Yet to call this simple Guitar Hero rock ‘n’ roll isn’t really fair either, as SOUND & FURY owes more to the synthwave scene, with cutting buzzy layers, reverb around the percussion pickups, and hints of Japanese chord progressions to tie it back to Simpson; even the synth tone of “Remember To Breathe” recalls a Japanese flute above all else.
Still, to give credit to Simpson, on a pure composition level, Simpson has the right ear for giving this project the feeling of impending doom (or the outright apocalypse) and a dystopian layer that still feels close-to-home for him. Even if I’m not wild about the production quality of “Fastest Horse In Town,” for example, it’s hard to deny how much of an adrenaline rush that song, or the rest of the album, can provide at points.
But most of those compliments are given toward the pure foundation of this project, because in terms of its actual execution, it’s a mixed bag. For an album focused on heavier grooves, it’s puzzling why they’re all stifled by guitars and snyths that are blended into a wall of sound, with the feedback often clipping the mix. Heck, “Best Clockmaker On Mars” operates on a recurring two-bar riff that wears out fast with no room for development or swell, which is probably my most common criticism for this album. Again, I might get a personal rush of “Fastest Horse In Town,” but even its ending solo is just the same part sped up to a faster tempo.
Again, though, that murky, monochromatic vibe works for the dystopian atmosphere of the project, but it’s a shame that Simpson’s impressive shredding has to fight against that aforementioned wall of sound. But that’s not to say there aren’t moments that don’t nail the atmosphere somewhat consistently. From the brooding, swaggering bass groove of “Remember To Breathe” to the spacey psychedelia permeating the keyboards and acoustic line on “All Said And Done” to give it more of a confessional atmosphere, while going for something melodically looser on “Mercury In Retrograde,” this album does work in places. Even if the buzzed-out tones undermine that groove of “Sing Along,” there’s even moments between that and “Mercury In Retrograde” where Simpson goes for that “dance rock” vibe he was aiming for all along.
And, of course, this is all to say that technical criticisms or even an observation of what this album means for Simpson are all pointless. Some might try and say that Simpson and the Zac Brown Band are trying their hardest to alienate fans with their respective latest albums, but the difference is that, the Zac Brown Band actually believe they’ll win over a new legion of fans while Simpson flips that band off on “A Good Look” as he passes by them in the other direction on his way down, and on his own terms. At best, SOUND & FURY is a nice adrenaline rush that still feels too overly compressed to deliver any sort of daring or abrasive rock ‘n’ roll; meanwhile, Simpson, lyrically, takes on the role of the young kid in punk rock who’s fueled by anger, yet comes across as arrogant and shallow without those deeper observations that he used to be capable of delivering, especially when he’s a grown adult and father. But without letting that shade the entire color palette of this album, SOUND & FURY is actually a decent listen, just one that wears thin quickly, and considering Simpson is looking to “brightly burst into the air,” as another artist once put it, at least he did a good job in that department.