Review | Sturgill Simpson - Sound and Fury
Sound and Fury is a wild, hard rock ride into Sturgill Simpson's psyche.
It’s clear why Sturgill Simpson is frustrated with the music business. Country music is one of the few genres left where big, mainstream success still relies on radio play, not streaming numbers. As a result, big Nashville studios tend to promote the most generic singles for radio, rather than looking for internet subcultures where an artist might click better. Sturgill Simpson – a restlessly creative artist who makes psychedelia-infused folk music – has not felt accepted in Nashville, for obvious reasons. Simpson has clashed with the country music establishment several times, most recently over the rights of country musicians to discuss politics.
Simultaneously, as he has collected more and more critical praise from websites like Pitchfork, he has begun to attract internet fans who congregate around new, cutting edge artists. But being a country musician amongst the Pitchfork-reading indie crowd can also be stifling. As a critic who exists – if not in, then at least adjacent to – indie music culture, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard fans call Sturgill the “saviour of country music.” That phrase manages to both insult an entire genre, but puts Simpson into a one-man box. He’s “the only good country singer,” according to people who don’t listen to any other country singers. On Sound and Fury, Sturgill spits venom at fans, critics, and everyone involved in the music industry – including himself.
The superficiality and pressure of life as a successful career musician is – by definition – not a very relatable topic for an album. The ones that try to elicit sympathy often fall flat or feel indulgent (remember Britney Spears' Lucky, or Taylor Swift’s Reputation?). These albums expect listeners to care enough about the trials of Taylor or Britney to listen and sympathize. They present the artist’s problems as inherently interesting topics their listeners will (obviously) want to hear about.
Unlike most celebrities, Sturgill doesn’t work too hard to explain his circumstances or appear sympathetic. Instead of translating his feelings to an audience, Sturgill lets you experience his anger and angst as a high-def, visceral experience. Sound and Fury’s first track, “Ronin,” intersperses apocalyptic-sounding news broadcasts with fast, driven guitar rock. Even on “Mercury in Retrograde,” the most subdued song on the record, Sturgill intersperses frustration with the paparazzi who bother him with grave ruminations on how the world will end (if not by nuclear war, by divine intervention). On Sound and Fury, Sturgill’s not just an introverted country singer, he’s a zen master, a rogue FBI agent, an outlaw speeding through a world gone to hell. Sound and Fury perfectly illustrates the difference between an artist who asks you to listen to their problems and one who drops you headlong into their version of reality.
Sound and Fury is not a country album, not even in the marginal, genre-bending way acts like Yelawolf might be considered “country.” Instead, we get an '80s rock album with the booming, layered sound mixing of modern progressive metal. At times, I feel like I’m listening to a version of ZZ Top from a techno-rock future. Like the best ZZ Top songs, tracks like “Make Art Not Friends” slowly lock into an undeniable groove. The bubbling synths underscored by subtle, haunting effects build to a gritty, gleaming wall of noise. It feels like riding in a speeding car that’s turning into a plane. “Best Clockmaker On Mars” is driven by a wailing guitar passage that swipes in and out of whistling synths: it’s too undeniable to sound cheesy. With a speedy, bouncing bass beat and wailing guitar passage, “Good Look” feels bluesy and funky, like a White Stripes song with an '80s dance beat.
While the songwriting is mostly simple, the dynamic range and the variety of sounds on display keep every track engaging. Sturgill gives each instrument the space to boom and echo; the different sounds clashing and resonating makes most tracks feel like soundscapes of imaginary worlds. The heavy distorted guitar that anchors the beat of “Make Art Not Friends” sounds industrial (I imagine a machine producing chunks of rock), while organ synths light up the background (spaceships?). The flute synths and glittering effects that begin “Best Clockmaker on Mars” could play in the background of a cheesy martial arts anime.
My friend recently introduced me to “resonance,” a concept often evoked by companies who need to make, say, a board game with a theme. Your board game will have a high barrier to entry if it’s set in a completely unfamiliar world you just made up, but it won’t be interesting or new if the audience is already overly familiar with the setting (ie, one exactly like Star Wars). A board game with “resonance” will invoke genre tropes the audience already understands (and associates with concepts like mystery or adventure), but combine them in new ways. “Sound and Fury” has resonance. The music reminds me of the exhilaration of high-speed chases, the breathless revelations of a sci-fi anime, the deep-rooted, moral rebelliousness of a Western.
Like a great movie trailer or music video, Sound and Fury reminds us of great movies without actually having to be a movie. The music brings a momentum, a grandiosity, and a poignancy usually evoked by film. Even before I knew about the spin-off anime on Netflix, I could imagine the aesthetic of Sound and Fury translated to the big screen.
Sound and Fury brings that grandiosity to a subject that’s not inherently exciting: obsessing over your art. On “Last Man Standing,” Sturgill cleverly boasts about his pen game with verses that sound more like rap than rock (“I never learned how to play, so I broke the game/Now I’m flippin' the board with the ink and the sword/and walkin' round crossin' off names”) The swagger of the track conveys the invincibility that comes when you finally perfect a piece of art. While “Best Clockmaker on Mars” is only tangentially about art, the title presents a perfect metaphor for artistry. When you’re alone working on a piece of art, there’s a point when you’re no longer aware of anyone else’s expectations, only of your own determination. You would be equally motivated even if you were only one practising your craft, on a planet where your art has no use or meaning. In your room, bent over your desk, or easel, or guitar, you’re determined to be “the best clockmaker on Mars.”
Sound and Fury is not a perfect album. On a few songs, the verse-chorus-verse structure gets boring; on a couple of others, the frenetic instrumentation prevents Sturgill from settling into a compelling groove. Despite these minor flaws, Sturgill has created a breathless, high-definition ride into his own anger and restlessness.
Best song: "Make Art Not Friends" Worst song: "Sing Along"