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Opinion: Country music's genre-defying genius

  • Sturgill Simpson’s country music roots belie his genius as a musician who straddles a range of genres
  • His new album is an experimental fusion of so many styles that it can leave you bewildered but also yearning for more

Simpson has released four full-length albums.
Simpson has released four full-length albums. (Getty Images)

The theme song of Jim Jarmusch’s new zombie apocalypse film, The Dead Don’t Die, is a song of the same name. It’s a single by Sturgill Simpson and I am not sure whether the Kentucky-based singer-songwriter composed it for Jarmusch’s film or it was an effort independent of the offbeat auteur’s new work, but the song and a physical copy of the single’s CD recur in the star-studded movie whose cast includes Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Iggy Pop, Selena Gomez and Tom Waits. Simpson himself also acts in the movie—he is, like Iggy Pop, a zombie named Guitar Zombie.

The film, which came out this summer and is a bizarre comment on the state of a material-obsessed world, is classified by many critics as a horror-comedy. Simpson’s lyrics in the song (Oh, the dead don’t die/ Any more than you or I/ They’re just ghosts inside a dream/ Of a life that we don’t own/ They walk around sometimes/ Never payin’ any mind/ To the silly lives we lead/ Or the reaping we’ve all sown) fit its plot to a T. The lazy way to pigeonhole Simpson, 41, is to call him a country singer. But although that label could fit him—his roots have always been in country music, in the tradition of the late Waylon Jennings or the thriving Willie Nelson—it’s one he is accorded because critics really don’t know what to make of his constantly changing oeuvre.

Simpson has released four full-length albums—the most recent one is Sound & Fury, which came out in end-September—but each is so different that it is hard to put a finger on Simpson’s genre. His first album, the self-financed High Top Mountain (2013), is a classic country album in vintage style, evoking the halcyon days of the genre. A revivalist’s endeavour, its traditional ballads recreate old-school honky-tonk bar vibes.

Simpson quickly got dubbed as country music’s new saviour, an epithet that probably didn’t sit well with him. Because his second album, the interestingly titled Metamodern Sounds In Country Music (2014), took his debut album’s country-rock classicism and turned it on its head.

In Metamodern Sounds, Simpson eschews old-style themes and writes songs that take on a new dimension. Drug-powered psychedelia raises its head in the album with songs such as the opener, Turtles All the Way Down, which happens to be about God, bristling with lyrics such as: Every time I take a look inside that old and fabled book/ I’m blinded and reminded of the pain caused by some old man in the sky/Marijuana, LSD, Psilocybin, and DMT/They all changed the way I see/ But love’s the only thing that ever saved my life. Not nearly as stereotypical (nor as superficial) as contemporary country music lyrics can often appear to be, the songs on Metamodern Sounds are deeply introspective, as Simpson seems to take a psychoanalyst’s look at his deepest, innermost thoughts. Okay, so he’s really an “outlaw country musician", people thought.

They were wrong. In 2016, Simpson released a concept album. Titled A Sailor’s Guide To Earth and dedicated to his then two-year-old son, the album is like a series of advisory missives from a father to his son, guides to growing up, experiencing the world and surviving the pitfalls of life. It topped the US country music charts and won the Grammy for the best country album. Yet, it couldn’t be more different from what you would expect country music to sound like. Lushly orchestrated with a tapestry of string, horns and other instruments, the songs deal with life lessons but also with politics, and the growing divisiveness in society. The soundscape is diverse: There are touches of soul and R&B, uncommon on a “country music album", and the lyrics are literate and pointed.

There’s also a kernel of surprise in Sailor’s Guide—Simpson’s cover of Nirvana’s song, In Bloom. But just as his fans had become used to his improvisational riffing on the “country music" theme, Simpson has sprung another surprise. His latest, Sound & Fury, is his most significant departure from the genre critics try to pin him down to.

It is so different from his previous albums that it could even put off Simpson’s most loyal fans. Yet it is an exquisite album. Ronin, the first song on Sound & Fury, is an instrumental track that recalls 1970s-style progressive rock. Just when you begin to recover from that surprise, there’s a panoply of other sonic experiments: new wave era sound; jittery synthesizers intermingling with psychedelic lead guitar riffs; funky, danceable tunes; and super-slick production. Like the Sailor’s Guide, Sound & Fury deserves to be heard in its entirety, at one go.

Along with the album, Sturgill has released an anime-style audiovisual recreation of the album on Netflix. It’s a film that tries to capture the diverse sonic experiments in Japanese-style animation. But it is the audio album that stands out. The songs don’t have traditional ends—they collide with each other. And there’s grunge; trippy acid rock; funk; and a whole host of other genres when you least expect them. Sound & Fury does two things: It shatters the preconceived stereotype of tying down an artist to a genre but more importantly, it establishes Sturgill Simpson as a vanguard of contemporary rock music’s new borders where genres blur, blend and fuse, and experiments throw up unexpected listening experiences.



Five tracks by Sturgill Simpson to bookend your week

1. ‘Sing Along’ from ‘Sound & Fury’

2. ‘Ronin’ from ‘Sound & Fury’

3. ‘Turtles All The Way Down’ from ‘Metamodern Sounds In Country Music’

4. ‘In Bloom’ by Sturgill Simpson from ‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth’

5. ‘You Can Have The Crown’ from ‘High Top Mountain’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

He tweets at @sanjoynarayan

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