Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
If scratching your head about the sounds emanating from Sturgill Simpson's third release, then "It Ain't All Flowers" from his last release, the excellent "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music," ought to serve as a reference point. In a disc filled with traditional country sounds, "Flowers" was about as far away as one could get with the electronics sounding so completely disjointed from everything else on the release. Put it this way - " Islands" would fit in on "A Sailor's Guide..."
Simpson, who self-produced "A Sailor's Guide" after relying on the esteemed Dave Cobb for his first two releases, discarded his country roots for something completely different. "A Sailor's Guide" is blues and soulful. Those who gravitated towards Simpson and his Waylon Jennings influence for what is now left-of-center country may be left behind. That's part of the musical journey, and Simpson obviously will have to live with that. Presumably, he made the album he wanted.
The Kentucky native says the nine-song release is a song cycle for his newborn son. The sure-voiced Simpson extols the joy of fatherhood in the opening "Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)" with the typical lament of missing him when he is on the road. Strings and the Dap-Kings (both are prominent elsewhere as well) on horns dot the song.
"Keep It Between the Lines" is more of a groove-oriented, musically soulful blues song thanks to the punchy toots of The Dap-Kings and a Wurlitzer.
Simpson quickly sets his sails on a completely different tack. Yes, there's steel guitar from Dan Dugmore, which gives the disc a bit of a country/rootsy sound (lots of it on "Sea Stories," about a hitch in the Navy and the only overtly country song here, and "Breakers Roar"), but that's about as country as this gets.
The biggest surprise is a spare, vocal-focused cover of Nirvana's "In Bloom," where Simpson puts his own interpretation of the song about outsiders gravitating onto the mainstream. He starts off in a country/rootsy vein before going with horns and soul-flavored vocals.
Simpson may be a father and happy in that role, but he minces no words for his son either. While urging him on with the simple advice to "keep it between the lines" in the song of the same title and "go out and live a little," he also starts "Brace For Impact (Live a Little)" with the line "Someday you'll wake up and this life will be over." Life apparently is not easy. And then the song grows increasingly atmospheric as it winds down.
Simpson goes into hyper drive on the closing "Call to Arms," an angry, perhaps cynical scream at control: the military ("They send our sons and daughters off to die for some oil and to control the heroin"), phones, ego, TV and how "the bullshit's got to go."
No life isn't easy, young man. That's the overriding message Simpson imparts to son number one. As for letting his son listen to it, here's two cents. Give him time, a long time. These messages are not easy or petty. Or particularly country.