Sturgill Simpson first broke out in 2014 with Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. A heady mix of rockabilly and psychedelia — garnished with “Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, DMT,” as he sang on the standout song “Turtles All the Way Down” — the collection ruminated on the origins of the universe, the meaning of life, and how to best endure the gloom of the here and now. Genre traditionalists heralded him as the Savior of Country Music, a new keeper of the Merle Haggard-Waylon Jennings flame.
But Simpson routinely shirked that title in interviews, refusing to pick a side in the genre-wars that have plagued Music City. So on his third album — his first with a major label and the first he’s produced on his own — the 37-year-old’s taking a similar tack with his music. Blending Memphis soul, New Orleans funk (thanks, in part, to the Dap-Kings, who play on five songs), and swamp-rock blues, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is the Kentucky-native’s most sonically ambitious set yet.
Thematically, though, the singer has a razor-sharp focus. Inspired by the birth of his first child, who arrived in summer 2014, Sailor’s Guide serves as a letter from a brand new father to his kid. “Hello my son,” he croons in a barrel-chested baritone on the album opener. “Welcome to earth.” Over the next 39 minutes, he shares stories from his navy days (“Sea Stories”), how he fell in love with his wife, the mother of his son (“Oh Sarah”), and lessons he’s learned from years of hard living. (Simpson has been sober for nearly a decade.)
On the Elvis-style number “Brace For Impact (Live A Little),” Simpson warns his son about life’s bleaker realities, singing, “One day you’ll wake up and this life will be over/Every party must break up for burdens to shoulder.” Elsewhere, he laments the travails of touring (“Breakers Roar”) and offers comfort with promises of unconditional love (“All Around You”). A wonderful interpreter, he also completely reinvents Nirvana’s “In Bloom” from a grunge rager into a gorgeous ballad.
Overall, the album is strikingly intimate. At times, it feels like you’ve somehow found yourself in the singer’s hallway, listening as he coos lullabies to his child in a nursery. “It’s all a dream,” he confides on “Breakers Roar” and reiterates on “Oh Sarah.” The same might be said for the collection itself.