Let’s argue about whether or not Sturgill Simpson is country. Actually, let’s not.
Let’s argue about whether or not Sturgill Simpson is country. Actually, let’s not. That conversation might or might not be dead, but it’s certainly irrelevant. Simpson hasn’t sat comfortably within Nashville at any point, nor has he quite allowed himself to be categorized otherwise, unless there’s a genre for “shifting uneasily around the edges of country.” With Sound & Fury, he makes that break from tradition complete. The album soundtracks an anime film and goes back in time and fully into rock ‘n’ roll mode.
Rather than expanding on country sounds, Simpson draws from the sort of music that came out of smalltown Pontiac Firebirds in the mid-’80s. Take some boogie-rock and some overdriven guitars, put down the windows and lap the block. Better yet, see how fast you can get on a curvy country road. Simpson turns it loose for 40 minutes. Even as an outsider, he’s rarely sounded like he’s cared less about what anyone else thinks. The sound itself is the message: it’s loud and pointed directly at you.
Simpson’s skillful enough not to limit himself. He could have made a KISS record or a Molly Hatchet tribute, but he instead he just throws everything together. “Sing Along” sounds like Southern rock for a nightclub. That follows the dark, bluesy groove of “Remember to Breathe,” which in turn follows the startling opener “Ronin.” Simpson posits himself as a wandering samurai, but one driven by stickshift car and a synthetic guitar sound. The track is to retro music what Stranger Things is to the actual 1980s, a very good approximation not of the era itself but of how we choose to remember the era. Simpson likewise gets weird; the cut oscillates between a psychedelic trip and a soundtrack to an old procedural (in the best possible way).
The immediacy of Simpson’s musical rage makes the initial impact, but the songs themselves aren’t tossed off as a sneering detour. The sequencing matters, letting the album be constantly surprising yet coherent. “Make Art Not Friends” owes something to the Cars, but “Best Clockmaker on Mars” heads back to the rural South. The music keeps a steady stomp, but Sturgill pauses his rush. Rather than channeling Bowie, as the title might suggest, he uses the track to stay grounded, to take a look around and understand his surroundings. The whole album blows by in a furor, but in the middle of the dust flying up, Simpson takes stock.
Late in the album, we get some motivation in “Mercury in Retrograde.” Simpson delivers the vocal casually, but “Living the dream makes a man wanna scream/ Light a match and burn it all down” reveals a deeper unrest. Simpson, instead, chooses to lit it on fire without burning it down. Closing number “Fastest Horse in Town” muddies the sound further (the mash of noise its own thesis statement), and Simpson returns to the car radio of “Ronin,” this time to look for “a gift card from God.” The finish connects nicely with the opening broadcast and its concerns about consumption. Simpson close the lid on the album, keeping everything neatly inside the box. What’s in that box, though, remains roiling chaos.