Nashville-based singer/songwriter Sturgill Simpson released his excellent new album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, today (May 13) and it is a monster.
Metamodern is the east Kentucky native’s follow-up to the acclaimed debut High Top Mountain, which was released only 11 months ago. On both albums Sturgill’s burnished baritone is something that may remind fans of Waylon, but Metamodern is no mere nostalgic homage to one style of country. It is, as the Ray Charles-indebted album title suggests, a thoroughly modern example of country that examines life in the present age. It also doesn’t have to rely on telling anyone how “country” it is, not that Sturgill really worries much about where he fits in the picture of country music.
Instead, Metamodern is just honest, from-the-gut songwriting and a backing band that can really cook. There are touches of that funky Outlaw sound, as well as bluegrass, soulful balladry and even swirling psychedelia.
“I can honestly say, considering the outlandishness and subject of the themes, it’s been the purest and most honestly inspiring group of songs I’ve ever written,” says Sturgill, calling in during a busy day of interviews. “It just all felt very easy when it did come, so maybe that’s why people are into it, because it was very honest.”
“Outlandish” is one way to describe it: The opening track “Turtles All the Way Down” tackles the confusion of existence, mentioning Jesus, the devil and Buddha in the first verse and then something about a gateway in our minds that leads somewhere out there beyond this plane where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain in the second verse. In the bridge, he lists a bunch of mind-altering drugs and how they made him feel, but says love (family, wife, friends, etc.) is the only real way to keep from going absolutely insane over our cosmic insignificance.
“It was influenced by a lot of nighttime reading, hobbyist reading,” he explains. “I certainly don’t pretend to be a physicist, but it’s no less fascinating. We’re all literally in this mystery together. To be token and cliché about it, you turn on the nighttime news and you see people dying or blown up over beliefs, being persecuted or saying you can’t vote or you can’t get married because of this or that. It numbs my head. I wanted to write a record centrally themed around love and understanding.”
That’s one song. There so much more, like the backsliding, down-and-out honky-tonker “Life of Sin,” the quietly soulful version of When in Rome’s new wave hit “The Promise” and even the gospel-inflected “A Little Light.”
It’s gotten Sturgill plenty of attention from media outlets far and wide, including plenty of ones not focused on country music. He says it’s terrifically exciting, but he’s really ready to hit the road and play the songs.
“I’ve probably spent twenty times as much effort explaining the record as I did writing it at this point,” he says, laughing, before drily adding, “Careful what you do.”
photo by Reto Sterchi/Sacks & Co.