The Metamodern Gospel of Sturgill Simpson
Published in Blog, villin. Tags: Interviews, Music, Nashville.
Does Sturgill Simpson ever consider giving up? “Every fucking day,” he said over the phone, speaking to the internal doubt that haunts his professional direction, emphasizing how the well being of his soon-to-be expanding family rests on his success as a musician. It’s a conflict that breathes through Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and one that he’s already succumb to, when he first walked away from his craft, opting instead for the security of a position with Union Pacific in Utah. “I’ll do this as long as I can,” he continued. “But if there comes a point where I feel like my family is suffering, or I’m putting my own needs in front of that, I’m done. I gotta walk away, and I’ll know that I tried and I can feel good about it.”
With a theme of discovery at its core, the record relates Simpson’s attempts at balancing family, purpose, and self. At its boldest it’s a battle cry to dismantle and shed the veneer of ego. At the very least it shows a man learning to get out of his own way. On first glance just a wink to Ray Charles’ 1962 masterpiece, the album’s title does well to frame this struggle within the context of creative outlet. In their 2010 “Notes on metamodernism” essay, Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker defined the abstract term as “[a sensibility] that negotiates between a yearning for universal truths on the one hand and relativism on the other, between hope and doubt, sincerity and irony, knowingness and naivety, construction and deconstruction.” Here exists a man in the middle of cosmic opposites, their conflicting polarities causing an existential crisis, only further inflated by a self-made dilemma of duty. This is space in which Metamodern Sounds exists.
An invisible force has been tugging at Simpson since forever. Moved to honor the sacrifices made for him by his family, he joined the Navy at age 19, leaving behind his Eastern Kentucky home for Tokyo’s neon glow. He chose not to follow in the footsteps of his father (an undercover narcotics officer) when returning to America however. Instead, a creative drive took over and he formed Sunday Valley in 2004, releasing an EP with the twang-infused rock group before aspiration once again clashed with circumstance, leaving him bound for Salt Lake City.
The railroad job wasn’t bad, but the long hours, weighed further by the added stress of a managerial promotion, pushed Simpson near collapse. A few years into the work and he’d had enough. As the story goes, his wife dusted him off and injected a little sense into him, directing him back toward music so as to keep him from driving them both crazy. Still riding the swinging pendulum between security and satisfaction, the couple sold much of what they owned, packed their car, and headed east, where a retooled Sunday Valley would be reborn.
The band released To the Wind and on to Heaven in 2011, received critically as a “totally bullshitless record” that’s “as good-hearted as it is raucous.” The new songs and renewed sense of direction led the band to Nashville, where it didn’t take long to find a little shine. By October, Sunday Valley was named “Best New Outlaw Band” by the Nashville Scene, with writer Edd Hurt praising the group’s “super-boogie style suggestive of The MC5 with a Bluegrass State-size case of the blues.” Time and change remaining constant however, the new year found another swing in direction. “Out of respect and honor for Billy, Gerald, & Eddie and the sacrifices we all have made for this thing over the years,” wrote Simpson in an early 2012 Facebook post, “I could never under any circumstances feel good about continuing my musical journey under the Sunday Valley name.” Previously billed as John Sturgill Simpson, the singer shortened his name and welcomed the future. “New band, new sound, new album coming very soon,” he continued. “[A]s they say, the next chapter is always better, that’s why we turn the page.”
It wasn’t long before the newly christened Sturgill Simpson and the High Top Mountain Boys was trimmed to just the frontman’s name; the group would instead use the secondary tag — a nod to “the final resting place of many past generations of [Simpson’s] family” — as the title of their next album. “When I did the High Top Mountain record I didn’t know if I’d actually be able to make another record after that,” continued Simpson over the phone. “So I wanted to make a very traditional hard-country album that not only I could feel good about, but my family could hear and be proud of.” Oscillating between the past and the future, last June’s release carried a purposeful “neo-traditional country sound,” with producer Dave Cobb recruiting steel guitarist Robby Turner and Country Music Hall of Famer Hargus “Pig” Robbins to help shape its form. The music again illustrated a swelling dualism within the songwriter though, Simpson’s lyrics and sound exposing a man attempting to understand who he’s yet to become by living in the past. The album might best be viewed as a relic of transition.
“I always felt like I left a piece of my soul there,” Simpson told Kentucky.com last year, reflecting on his time in Japan after returning there to shoot the music video for “Railroad of Sin.” Much of the album, and the High Top period, feels in retrospect like Simpson going back over a trail of breadcrumbs, reclaiming bits of his soul that had been scattered over time. Album opener (and Sunday Valley holdout) “Life Aint Fair and the World is Mean,” for example, revisits the “turn the page” comment in a lampoon of the music industry. “It’s about life, how I came to Nashville with a very naïve perspective and some very quick, hard lessons learned,” he continued. “Without being too specific, it’s my own personal reminder of what I don’t want to do.” As the writing progressed for his next album, Simpson began to develop a keener sense for who he no longer was as a songwriter. “Honestly,” he commented this past March, speaking to WFPK, “I just kinda woke up and felt like I couldn’t write any more songs about broken hearts and drinking.”
“[High Top Mountain] gave me the realization that I had the freedom to write about whatever-the-fuck I wanted to,” he continued in our conversation, speaking to the thematic evolution of Metamodern Sounds. “There’s all these other things I’m interested in, and personal experiences that I’ve never really incorporated into music.” This isn’t to say that he completely abandoned High Top‘s themes with the release, however: “Life of Sin,” for example, goes deep in illuminating past transgressions (“Every morning when I rise I look in the mirror and despise / The sight of everything and all that I’ve become / The level of my medicating some might find intimidating / But that’s alright ’cause it don’t bother me none”). But unlike his last album, the subject matter here appears a springboard for higher-minded thinking, and flirtations with such themes translate as an exorcism of the past: purposeful molting to welcome evolution. With Metamodern Sounds Simpson isn’t moving beyond “broken hearts and drinking” simply for the sake of doing so, or to spit on country music tropes or position his music against contemporaries, but only because that’s just not where he is anymore.
While citing classics from Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder as inspiration, musically, the bulk of Metamodern Sounds lives in a similar space as its predecessor — though it sounds at times even more traditional than High Top, and its detours are unquestionably more ambitious. “I fully anticipated on being the acid-country guy,” he said, presumably speaking to the twisting psychedelia of “It Ain’t All Flowers.” Once again produced by Dave Cobb, the album was recorded live-to-tape in just four days. Simpson continued, “I feel like I’ve sort of cleared my throat and gotten my sound down.” The result is a record as appealing to Williamsburg as it is Lake Wobegon, modern sounding and full of risks while familiar and sentimental at the same time. Much of the credit for the album’s range and consistency belongs to the band, comprised of Simpson’s longtime bassist Kevin Black, drummer Miles Miller, and Estonian guitarist Laur “Little Joe” Joamets. “I wanted to make a record for people that don’t know that it’s possible to like country,” added Simpson. “It’s all really just soul music at the end of the day.”
The album’s opening track, “Turtles All the Way Down,” is further evidence of metamorphosis, finding the singer attempting to confront and abandon his past self by using psychedelics as exploratory vehicles, employed to break down “the self-defense mechanisms that we all don’t even realize we create for ourselves.” (“I don’t do drugs anymore,” he mentioned later in our conversation. “I would love to know what the album sounds like on drugs, but I probably never will.”) This led him to “look for other things that could change the direction of [his] life” – a sort of literary rabbit hole that he followed, digesting Rick Strassman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in the process. “Everybody’s going to get hung up on all the other shit that went into it,” he continued. “But all it was was really like this 15 year psychobabble existentialistic dilemma that led me to writing a record about love that sounds like I’m trippin’ my balls off. But you don’t really need drugs to get there, you know?”
In a Facebook post last week thanking fans, Simpson took a moment to exhale: “It goes without saying that I am about as sick of hearing/talking about me as I have ever been in my entire life.” People wanting a piece of you is a consequence of having something to offer though. Perhaps demonstrative of this (or just evidence of a great publicist), Simpson is currently in high demand: Metamodern Sounds premiered on NPR, Simpson recently performed on BBC2’s Later… with Jools Holland, and he has a Late Show With David Letterman appearance on the books for July. Despite aiming beyond mainstream country, there’s something to be said for the commercial appeal of a thoughtful masculine figure, preaching love and referencing literary influences over a sonically traditional bed of distinctly American music. (As Bill Hicks once mocked, there’s big money in “that anti-marketing dollar,” which might be funny here if authenticity hadn’t become so profitable.) At the very least Metamodern Sounds should resonate with recent country music converts introduced to the genre through Kacey Musgraves’ casual rebellion, now looking beyond her gateway songs in search of a more profound high. Regardless, a successful career appears imminent. Simpson’s motivations, however, remains fuzzy.
As “Notes on metamodernism” concludes, “the ‘destiny’ of the metamodern wo/man [is] to pursue a horizon that is forever receding.” It’s hardly a stretch to re-frame Simpson’s career to this point through such a lens. While few of us know what we’re truly searching for beyond “happiness” or “love,” we’re all looking for the same thing. We all grapple with direction, meaning, and purpose, and so does Simpson, which is why he’s the first person to clarify that he doesn’t pretend to have any answers. That doesn’t mean he isn’t trying to provoke something within us as he discovers more about himself though. As his recent Station Inn set wound down, the singer looked at the floor for a moment and spoke halfway under his breath before playing the show out, “Thank you very much. Don’t give up hope.” Few words carry such weight, but what do they actually mean? Hope for what? Hope that our decisions to breathe as artists don’t prevent us from feeding and housing our families? Hope that we’re able to find a way to make it through another day without hitting the self-destruct button of chemical escapism? Maybe just hope that tomorrow is going to be alright. If Metamodern Sounds says anything, it’s that no matter what exists beyond the horizon, we should never stop trying to reach it.
[This article was first published on Villin.net and was featured by Baron Lane.]