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Sturgill Simpson Moves Into Uncharted Waters In 'A Sailor's Guide to Earth'


This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of Sturgill Simpson's new country album. Simpson attracted a lot of attention for his 2014 album "Metamodern Sounds In Country Music," a title that suggested he was working in more alternative forms of the country genre. Ken says that on the new album, called "A Sailor's Guide To Earth," Simpson goes even further in his range and experimentation.


STURGILL SIMPSON: (Singing) There will be days when the sun won't shine, when it seems like the world is against you. Don't be afraid when life is unkind. You can let go of anything if you choose to. As time slips away...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: There's a sense in which Sturgill Simpson's new concept album about becoming a father, something he did in 2014. "A Sailor's Guide To Earth" opens with an charmingly bombastic addressed to his son's arrival into the world. After some orchestral throat clearing, Simpson gives his son nothing less than what his song title refers to as "A Welcome To Earth."


SIMPSON: (Singing) Hello my son. Welcome to Earth. You may not be my last, but you'll always be my first. Wish I'd done this 10 years ago, but how could I know, how could I know? But the answer was so easy...

TUCKER: This is not your typical country music, is it? Which is also not to say it isn't. There have been charges that Simpson has abandoned country music on this album, which includes a very sincere cover of the Nirvana song "In Bloom," yet that charge is disproven every time he opens his mouth.

His Kentucky locutions anchor his sailor's guide to country music as surely as Dan Dugmore's steel guitar does. Simpson also reconnects country to its affinity for rhythm and blues in a song such as "Keep It Between The Lines in which he offers that kid of his some life advice.


SIMPSON: (Singing) Don't turn mailboxes into baseballs. Now, don't get busted selling at 17. Most thoughts deserve two or three more. Motor oil is motor oil, just keep the engine clean. Keep your eyes on the prize. Everything will be fine long as you stay in school, stay off the hard stuff and keep between the lines.

TUCKER: Listening to this nicely funky song powered by the Dap-Kings horn section, I would be confused if I was a child. Isn't Sturgill precisely the kind of father who'd tell his son to color outside the lines? It's a little hard to tell whether Simpson's sober advice to stay in school and stay off the hard stuff is entirely sincere.

But of course, ambiguity is frequently where art resides. And anyone yearning for some of the hard-core country rock you get when you go to hear Simpson in concert will be rewarded with a song such as "Sea Stories."


SIMPSON: (Singing) Keep your mouth shut and you'll be fine. Just another enlisted egg in the bowl for Uncle Sam's beater. When you get to Dam Neck, hear a voice in your head say my life's no longer mine. Have you running with some S-A-D, S-O-G, B-M-F sandeaters. Setting out on them high seas...

TUCKER: While I admired his independent spirit, I wasn't much of a fan of Simpson's previous album "Metamodern Sounds In Country Music," which struck me as too self-conscious, ostentatiously arty and too derivative - specifically, vocals whose phrasing and tone could be heard in Waylon Jennings albums from the 1970s. This is not, I'm pleased to observe, the Sturgill Simpson to be heard most of the time on "A Sailor's Guide To Earth."


SIMPSON: (Singing) Oh how the breakers roar, keep pulling me farther from shore. Thoughts turn to a love so kind just to keep me from losing my mind. So enticing, deep dark sea. It's so easy to drown in the dream. Oh, and everything...

TUCKER: That's "Breakers Roar," one of "Sailor's" many references to the sea. Simpson, who spent three years in the Navy, is drawn to water imagery throughout this album of birth and rebirth. It's the amniotic fluid in which his creativity floats. But there's very little that's lulling about the "Sailor's Guide To Earth." It's Sturgill Simpson's voyage into uncharted waters, whether he's talking about first-time parenthood or creating songs that venture into country music wilderness territory.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Sturgill Simpson's new album "A Sailor's Guide To Earth."


GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, something special - the onstage interview I recorded Sunday with Ahmir Questlove Thompson, the co-founder and drummer of The Roots, whose many credits include being the house band for "The Tonight Show." Questlove wrote the show's theme. We talked about his new book of interviews with chefs, his final conversation with his father, Lee Andrews, who died last month and he told some great stories about Prince. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Myers, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.