Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music has proven a widely lauded, though often misunderstood, release. Much of this disconnect between Metamodern… and the manner in which reviewers have perceived it stems from the reviewers’ perception that the album represents some sort of novel break from genre norms, rather than a point in a stylistic continuum, an extension of all the things of which the best country music has been fashioned.
Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds In Country Music (High Top Mountain Records)
Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music has proven a widely lauded, though often misunderstood, release. Much of this disconnect between Metamodern… and the manner in which reviewers have perceived it stems from the reviewers’ perception that the album represents some sort of novel break from genre norms, rather than a point in a stylistic continuum, an extension of all the things of which the best country music has been fashioned. (And while a degree of cluelessness regarding country music’s rich tapestry can be forgiven, a more egregious example – such as the article declaring him the “Radiohead of country music” – should be cause for grievous fucking embarrassment on the part of its author.)
For this line of argument’s sake, any of the album’s songs would suffice as an example. The well-worn trope of the road song shows up in “Long White Line.” Gospel touches manifest themselves on “A Little Light Within.” Even the cross-genre cover song, which artists like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings (of whom Simpson could likely do a convincing impression) did frequently, pops up with a version of synth-pop one-hit-wonders When In Rome’s “The Promise,” a re-imagining that, as many of the better unlikely covers do, serves to demonstrate that under layers of dated schmaltzy viscera (and for those of a certain cinematic inclination, the unfortunate fatty tissue of association with Napoleon Dynamite), a skeleton of solid songwriting had propped the whole thing up from the start. Even the album’s title references Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music, Ray Charles’ 1962 foray into the genre.
But the best examination of the album’s success comes from a juxtaposition of its opening and closing songs. “Turtles All The Way Down,” the former of the two and cause of much of the album’s notoriety, essentially acts as a paean to love couched in the language of psychedelic mysticism. This hallucinatory bent acted as a lightning rod for much of the critical attention Simpson has garnered of late, though many seem to miss the idea that “Turtles…” is more a love song than a drug song. And, despite the Terrence McKenna inclinations, the conceit itself – that of drugs being great but love acting as the only truly important thing – had already been written by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings in their song “I Can Get Off On You” in 1977 (though to be fair, Simpson’s substitution of DMT and mushrooms for the latter duo’s amphetamines and cocaine represents a refreshing personal touch). What’s more, heavily phased and flanged pedal steel had already graced much of David Allan Coe’s 1970s output. This hardly suggests “Turtles…” lacks power. On the contrary, the song’s appeal derives from an otherworldly atmosphere, both musically and lyrically, that finds itself both as forward-thinking and traditionalist as any of his best predecessors, willing to embrace a well-worn conceit but to simultaneously claim it as his own.
As omega to the alpha of “Turtles…,” the album’s closing song “Panbowl” (a song unfortunately only included in the album’s digital version rather than on any physical format, a frustrating development for those who still purchase physical media – though the album does at least include a download) opts for a tack more familiar to the genre, reflecting on the small town in which Simpson grew up, and the family that lived therein. Such a straightforward songwriting approach, one often acting as the lines between which dog-whistle conservative longing for some halcyon past can be read, finds a more effective form here. Rather than regaling this listener with an overarching narrative, Simpson offers a series of brief vignettes, moments plucked from time, some contextualized and some not. Each snippet, whether describing an event or a person, benefits from an economy of language, summing its subject up so effectively that, though the listener has only been graced with a line or two, he or she almost feels as if that person were standing next to them taking in the music as well. The approach is much the same as on “Turtles…” though far more subtle and restrained, possessed of a sparsity and emotional gravity that render it the best slice of musical autobiography since Killer Mike’s “Willie Burke Sherwood,” a collection of slices of life that abut each other in a manner that seems neither fragmented nor disingenuous, and acts as an effective counterbalance to the more overtly radical inclinations of the album’s first song.
So while Simpson’s much-vaunted novelty may be considerably overstated, one should hardly consider that a negative assessment at all. Simpson understands where his music emanates from and, like so many of the most important country singers who came before him – from the Carter Family injecting feminism into “Single Girl,” to Ray Charles bending the racial and stylistic divisions tacitly enforced by the recording industry of the time, to Johnny Cash’s late-life Nine Inch Nails and Danzig covers – demonstrates his ability to incorporate some unlikely and subversive elements into his music, lending it a distinctly personal panache that helped to render his most recent album one of the year’s best.