Sturgill Simpson opens Metamodern Sounds in Country Music with a bit of a curveball for fans of his outstanding solo debut High Top Mountain. “Turtles All the Way Down” shows a more philosophic side to the throwback country singer, and even throws in some odd spacy, progressive sounds.
Now, don’t get it all mixed up. There are some warbly guitars and echoing vocals, and he is sharing thoughts on religion, man’s place in the universe and, yes, “reptile aliens made of light” that cut you open and pull out all of your pain. Anchoring that, though, is the same old school, heavily Waylon-influenced country that made High Top Mountain such an awesome record.
Oddly, my two favorite tracks on this record are both a little different from what Simpson delivered last time. The last “official” track on the album brings perhaps a bigger surprise than “Turtles All the Way Down.” “It Ain’t All Flowers” opens with some backmasking that creates a pretty hot bass groove. After a brief bit of that, it drops into a little more familiar sound, but with a bit more of a progressive and Southern rock sound than we’re used to. Rather than the Waylon influence we get through most of the record, this dark number reminds me more of the younger Jennings boy. It’s part outlaw country, part psychedelic rock and part just wild, with Simpson yipping and yelling like a crazed coyote at points. My only complaint with the tune is that it wears out its welcome a little toward the end as it just seems to keep going and going for nearly seven minutes with more of that backmasking after the meat of the song ends around 4:30.
Elsewhere, though, Simpson delivers a more familiar and expected sound. “Life of Sin” follows “Turtles All the Way Down” with an upbeat, chugging honky tonk number in the vein of “You Can Have the Crown” from High Top Mountain. “Long White Line” gives us a rowdy rocking road tune with an interesting rhythm that has just a little bit of Johnny Cash worked in.
“Living the Dream” showcases both a melancholy and practical side as Simpson delivers one of my favorite lyrics of the record: “I don’t need to change my strings, ’cause the dirt don’t hurt the way I sing.” Given his no-nonsense country voice, it’s a perfect sentiment. The song also features a pretty hot guitar solo as it cranks up in the middle.
One of the strangest choices on the album is probably the cover of When In Rome’s late 1980s pop tune “The Promise.” Simpson turns the synth and drum machine-heavy new wave tune into a soft and sincere country love song that plays on the opening piano line from the original, but bears little other resemblance to it.
Finally, he offers the same nod to traditional music that he did on High Top Mountain with “A Little Light,” a joyful, gospel-influenced number that can’t help but make you feel good.
Two albums into his solo career, Sturgill Simpson remains one of the most interesting characters in country music today. His music is deeply rooted in 1970s country, most notably the Waylon Jennings school of outlaw, but he also shows a reverence for the most traditional of country sounds — bluegrass and gospel. On Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (or “mettarmodren,” as we hear in the intro), he also shows a willingness to experiment and step outside the constraints of that style.
As with High Top Mountain, the songs here are incredibly well written, with a good mix of heartfelt and hell-raising moments. Of all of the underground country artists kicking around out there right now, there might not be a more pure and genuine one than Sturgill Simpson. I continue to be impressed.