The best records unfold gradually: a loop of hidden ideas, buried beats or glassy licks that emerge with each repeated spin. And the sophomore LP of Sturgill Simpson, "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music," is surely one of them -- a country album anchored by his oaky voice on deep echo, thick with melodies that feel at once familiar and smashed to threads. Simpson knows how to get people talking – the title itself is both a reference to Ray Charles’ "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" and a nod to magna-cum-weirdo Seth Abramson, known for his poetry and head-scratching essays that creatively contextualize the twenty-first century. It's the work of man who wants to set critics off like a top, endlessly chasing their own tails.
"Metamodern Sounds in Country Music" is a masterful work of musical experimentation, but it’s not revivalist: actually, it’s future-forward. Sure, it can be tempting to label it vintage-goes-bizarre, particularly the minute those pedal steel vamps swivel like a Southern version of a Rod Serling soundtrack – you’re traveling through another dimension, alright, and it’s nowhere near Music Row. But what it really is, if you strip away all the noise, is a truly modern offering. Sturgill Simpson isn’t the second coming of Waylon Jennings. He’s more likely on the path to becoming country music’s Radiohead.
In an age where Mumford & Sons ape old-time music and Prohibition mustaches, and suspenders and banjos are all the rage, Simpson is offering something that lives in the space where these two opposite poles overlap – the meeting place between obscure, PhD concepts and honky-tonk fit for dusty bars and Southern porches. According to Abramson, this is a feat only approached by mash-up artists like Girl Talk. Until Simpson came along, on a polar path from Kentucky to Nashville, Tennessee, a city that is the past-future incarnate, with people that look plucked out of "Boardwalk Empire" peddling coffees to scores of heads buried in MacBooks, who might be busy putting a new fuzzy filter on an Instagram photo of a fiddle.
"Metamodern Sounds" has a brilliant lead song titled after a phrase popularized by Stephen Hawking in a "A Brief History of Time": “Turtles (All the Way Down)." Add in references to drugs and Buddha and set it all to a futurized twang with instrumentation that sounds digital but is solely analog, and you’ve got a conundrum almost as rich as the turtle problem itself: If the world is flat and balancing on the backs of giant turtles, as the mythology says, then what happens when the last turtle is gone? It’s enough to make your head spin, but fortunately the album is at its core a bunch of love songs, as whimsically delicate as blown glass – but nowhere near as transparent.
The fact that a good portion of the conversation around Simpson’s new LP -- which is surely one of the best country releases of late -- is mostly focused on how his music fits in (or doesn’t) within a genre that gravitates toward trucks and tailgates, is pretty telling. Is it country? Is it weird? Because if Luke Bryan sings about beers and Florida Georgia Line has fancy wallet chains, then what is this? It’s a classic SAT question for the modern age: If we analogize Bryan to country music, then Simpson’s sound must be… old, right?
Simpson, however, is not old (35), and neither is his music – but something curious happens when country artists emerge who venture sonically into the territory that could have existed if Garth Brooks and Shania Twain had not hit the pause button on the outlaw movement, and instead spiraled it down a different, poppier path, one where something like Simpson’s record is so lonesome it could cry. These LPs become “retro” or “traditionalist” simply because they’re different from what’s high on the charts. Add in mentions of LSD, protophilosphers and weird science, and you’ve really got turtles all the way down.
It’s a strange conundrum: Why do we allow rock music to evolve in a separate sphere from its genealogy, yet get so caught up in genre-tagging when it comes to country? The fact that Simpson and Carrie Underwood can exist under one umbrella is too taxing a thought for some, whereas Coldplay and the Black Keys are both easily called rock bands, despite huge gaps in their style. It’s part of the reason we’ve designed the vague, splintered category that is “Americana” – one that contains the likes of Rodney Crowell, Jason Isbell and yes, Simpson. In our old rulebook, they would have just been called country.
Because Simpson is. Like the far out vamps on “It Ain’t Flowers” that sound at once like a cosmic soundtrack to a bending universe and a DJ scratching an unbroken record, there are endless bounds to music if you drop the pull of gravity but keep your head out of the clouds. As Hawking once described the best advice he ever gave his children: “Remember to look up at the stars, and not down at your feet.” Simpson might put it a little differently, but on "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music," he doesn’t look down at all.