The appropriately titled A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is literally just that: a sailor’s guide to Earth. Drawing on his years abroad in the Navy and recent years of fatherhood, Sturgill Simpson’s new album is written as a heartrending series of life lessons from a seafaring father to his wife and son back home. In previous albums Simpson’s traditional country tone and heavy southern drawl are juxtaposed against topics of drug use, metaphysics, and “reptile aliens made of light.” However, A Sailor’s Guide pushes the boundaries of country in another way, incorporating funky horns and bass such that the album is borderline Motown.
Opening with the sounds of gulls, waves, and buoy bells, the nautical theme is lyrically and sonically recurrent yet understated throughout the album, serving as the conceptual platform upon which each song is built into a tangentially relevant life lesson. While the concept may sound hokey, it actually comes through as an uplifting and unaffected follow-up to his darker and at times bleak Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.
The opening track of A Sailor’s Guide, “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)”, starts off as a typical country ballad, but suddenly bursts into the energetic R&B horns of the Dap-Kings who back much of the album. From this stylistic shift at the line “And if sometimes daddy has to go away / Please don't think it means I don't love you” it’s immediately clear that Simpson is far more dynamic than he’s shown us until now, and his time touring away from his wife and young son has served as inspiration for this sentimental album.
Simpson’s new album is written as a heartrending series of life lessons from a seafaring father to his wife and son back home.
The energy dials back a moment for “Breakers Roar;” laced with ambient pedal steel it’s a melancholy classic-country reminder of how very Waylon Jennings Sturgill can sound. We’re then thrust again into some rhythmic horn-backed tunes, as is the recurrent theme of the album—an ebb and flow between heartfelt country dirges and party worthy funk jams.
The album’s punchy, blues-rock single “Brace for Impact (Live A Little)” is a real stand-out with some unexpected prog input. The album wraps up with a politically charged middle finger to the Man in the ′70s-esque “Call to Arms”—a rejection of war, consumerism, and the media. Simpson leaves us with the call to action, singing “Bullshit on the T.V./ Bullshit on the radio/ Hollywood tellin’ me how to be/ Bullshit’s got to go” before jumping into an anthemic outro jam that could be the soundtrack to Vegas heist.
As a whole the album is a dynamic, boundary-pushing contribution to music. It’s an enjoyable and accessible piece of art with modern themes and creative musicality that arguably transforms country into something unique.