One of the most under-appreciated feats of an artist is their ability to successfully reinvent themselves throughout each phase of their career. It’s bold and risky to intentionally move beyond something that has already proven to be both popular and lucrative. ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ is a surprisingly apt proverb when applied to the music industry; it describes the temptation that many artists succumb to in order to achieve longevity and appeal to their core fanbases. But the defining legacy of any great artist is not their ability to avoid ‘breaking’ things, but instead their relentless pursuit of building something entirely new.
Sturgill Simpson’s recent SOUND & FURY isn’t his best album, but it is entirely different musically and thematically from all 3 of his earlier projects. The accompanying Netflix original anime movie adds incredible depth to the album, and further distinguishes it as a unique entry in his discography. After watching the film version, it becomes quickly apparent why Simpson felt the audio format alone couldn’t convey the level of desolation rampant in his bleak and imaginative apocalyptic universe.
The scope of SOUND & FURY alone deserves praise, but that’s not to say that the 41 minutes of music don’t hold their own when isolated from the film. It’s a pretty damn good psychedelic rock and roll album, undoubtedly influenced by the likes of classic rockers ZZ Top and modern blues rockers Black Keys. Borrowing elements of style from great bands like these is especially welcome in an era lacking significant rock and roll music of any kind.
Simpson’s 2016 A Sailor’s Guide to Earth showed he was eager to break outside the boundaries of country music in search of new sounds. (Yet, remarkably, it won the Grammy for best country album, which is a misleading categorization at best given the large doses of funk, R&B, rock, blues, and grunge). The collection of songs on SOUND & FURY is not as diverse as what’s on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, and although there are moments that pull from various genres (synth beats, soulful hooks, and country lyrics) – it ends up being the farthest thing from a country album he’s ever made.
Moving away from his country roots, Simpson hides his signature southern voice behind heavy guitar licks and distortion. The fiery explosion on the album cover mirrors the apocalyptic intensity that’s packed into every song on the album. Along with hiding his voice behind the booming electric guitar grooves, he also trades personal and tender moments for bigger societal themes around consumerism, violence, and isolation. SOUND & FURY shows another side of Sturgill the musician, and although it may not appeal to all his country music fans, and it may not be his best work, it does affirm his absolute lack of complacency as an artist.
The Netflix film by the same name, written and directed by Jumpei Mizusaki of Japan, takes the album’s dystopian theme and amplifies it tenfold. The 35-minute action movie is broken into vignettes for each song on the album. The storylines track various samurais journeying through a war-torn world oozing with violence, gore, and death; fires, flooded cities, and pollution; and enslaved communities with numbers carved into their foreheads. At its core, it’s about the abuse and utter disregard for the earth’s valuable resources: mainly the natural environment and its human inhabitants. The beginning sequences show capitalist masters getting paid to (literally) kill manual laborers in a city teeming with robots and slaves. The rock music score is probably the only reason it’s not considered a horror film, despite the horrifying hopelessness of a world where the end is the only relief.
(If you don’t watch the whole movie, skip to the stellar ‘Mercury in Retrograde’ segment starting at 29:45, where Sturgill sings about a haircut he got in Norway while a character on screen escapes the matrix and struggles to free himself from a head of gears. It will be very difficult not to jump to the beginning once getting a taste).
The success of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth brought fame that Sturgill Simpson never wanted. The Kentuckian appreciates the simple, organic pleasures of life, as opposed to the hollywood charades. Surrounded by an unfamiliar world, he quickly sniffed out all the bullshit around him, and made the pessimistic SOUND & FURY as a cathartic middle finger to all the destructiveness he wanted to hop in a car and drive away from. In other words: he made art, not friends. 🍑