At the end of 2016, Sturgill Simpson managed maybe the most unlikely Grammy Album of the Year nomination of the modern era, for his third LP, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. A few months later, he lost that particular award—to Adele—but did manage to walk away with a Grammy for Best Country Album. None of those things are going to happen again, and it’s not because Sound & Fury, the long-awaited follow-up to Sailor’s Guide, isn’t great. Rather, it’s because Sound & Fury 1) isn’t a country album, and 2) is even more blatantly unmarketable than its predecessor.
In a lot of ways, Sound & Fury is an anomaly in the 2019 music world. It’s the sound of a guy who was once hailed as a country music savior—first for his trad-country debut High Top Mountain and later for the experimental, boundary-pushing Metamodern Sounds in Country Music—callously tossing that mantle in the fire. It’s also the sound of an artist who was on the cusp of superstardom—maybe not quite Chris Stapleton/arena-concert-tour level, but close—walking away from it. Finally, it’s a loud, dirty, unapologetic ‘70s-style rock album—the kind that absolutely no one makes anymore. The guitars are so loud and so prominent that they sometimes threaten to drown Sturgill’s voice out entirely. Not that he’d probably mind.
From the beginning, Sturgill has seemed to bristle at the level of admiration he drew from the traditional country music crowd. As he started to blow up and reach a broader audience, you could see him visibly clashing with the idea of fame. During the Sailor’s Guide cycle, for instance, he played a marquee Saturday Night Live slot, but turned it into a riot, abusing his guitar and ending his second song of the night—a blistering take on the Sailor’s Guide closing track “Call to Arms”—looking both out-of-breath and defiant. When the Grammy thing happened, Sturgill accepted his Best Country Album trophy with a barb about how “the revolution will not be televised”—a reference to the Grammy committee exiling the award from the main telecast. And while his fans were probably praying he’d score an underdog win in Album of the Year, Sturgill was fretting about that same potential outcome. He’s since said that, if he had won, he would have silently taken the trophy, delivered it to wherever Beyoncé was sitting, and then left the building immediately.
Given everything that happened around Sailor’s Guide, it was easy to wonder whether Sturgill Simpson would ever make another record. He seemed so uncomfortable with being in the limelight that it might have suited him to “take the money and run,” as it were: capitalize on the Grammy visibility to sell some records, route a quick sellout tour, and then disappear from view. To quote Taylor Swift, “take the money and your dignity and get the hell out.” Sturgill’s role as producer and mentor to the guy who is his ostensible country music replacement—Tyler Childers—only lent more credence to that potential outcome.
Instead, Sturgill went off to make Sound & Fury—a rebellion-against-fame record that seems deliberately calibrated to alienate his early fans, scare off future Grammy voters, and give the Saving Country Music guy a heart attack.
“Living the dream makes a man want to scream/Light a match and burn it all down,” Sturgill sings on “Mercury in Retrograde,” a song about escaping everything the last album brought him. “Head back home to the mountains/Far away from all the pull/Of all the journalists and sycophants, wielding their brands/And all the travel and trophies and award show stands/And all the haters wishing they was in my band/Sorry boys, the bus is plum full.” It’s a cynical song, one that outlines the mistrust Sturgill feels toward everyone from the pillars of the country music establishment right down to his fans and critics. This record could be viewed as a middle finger to all those people, as Sturgill actively takes a hatchet to just about everything that defined him previously.
It’s a risky move, and Sound & Fury is a risky project. Beyond the album’s status as a sonic departure, it’s also being released alongside an anime film that reportedly cost $1.2 million to make. In a recent New York Times article, Sturgill joked about refusing to turn the album in unless his label footed the bill for that project. (He’s signed to Elektra.) Sound & Fury, then, is effectively Sturgill’s “blank check” album: a record he’s releasing at the peak of his powers, with full artistic freedom, perhaps because he knows he might not get the same freedom again.
That’s not to say Sound & Fury represents a complete rejection of Sturgill’s country music roots. There’s a definite honky-tonk stomp to songs like “Last Man Standing,” and Sturgill’s voice is so innately twangy that he can’t help but sound a little bit country even when the songs he’s singing definitely aren’t country songs. And for the most part, these songs definitely aren’t country songs. The way the record is played and produced takes it far from the classic Nashville fare that populated High Top Mountain, and just as far from the soulful, horn-blasted bombast of Sailor’s Guide. When the guitars aren’t dominating, it’s the synths that rule the day—sometimes creeping ominously, sometimes thudding into your eardrums with blunt force. Sturgill and his band recorded these songs at a run-down motel in Waterford, Michigan, playing loud and tracking everything on vintage equipment. When you listen to it, it’s almost hard to believe they didn’t bring the walls of the place crashing down. The raw, visceral energy of songs like “Sing Along,” the ripping lead single; or “Fastest Horse in Town,” the blown-out finale, gives the album more in common with sleazy Stones classics than with country music heroes like Hank Williams or Waylon Jennings.
If there’s a drawback to the rage and cynicism of Sound & Fury, it’s that it clashes so harshly against what made Sailor’s Guide so special. Sturgill wrote that record about the birth of his son and used the songs to lay bare all of the fears and anxieties he felt about raising a child in a fucked-up, war-torn world. It came out in the spring of 2016, right in the midst of the election cycle, and it now feels hauntingly prescient given everything that’s happened since. That record was a showcase of Sturgill’s vulnerable humanity as well as his undeniable writing chops. Comparatively, Sound & Fury is more of a style exercise. Said another way, A Sailor’s Guide was the masterpiece; Sound & Fury is the reaction to the masterpiece.
If we’re being fair, though, Sound & Fury is likely to gain some power and thematic perspective once we’ve seen the accompanying anime film, which premieres on Netflix today. Pieces of the record—the car on the cover, the engine roars that bookend the album, the bursts of static in between tracks that mimc someone changing stations on a radio—hint at a concept we don’t quite get in audio-only form. Perhaps the film will answer some of those questions and tie the record together in a deeper and more emotionally impactful fashion. Even if it doesn’t, though, there’s value to loud, messy, tossed-off rock LPs like this one. Those kinds of records used to be plentiful; now, they’re an endangered species. Leave it to a don’t-give-a-fuck rebel like Sturgill Simpson to bring them back.