Trust me, I’ve been hatin’ on modern country music for years. And if you’re not a hick, a baseball player, or a whiskey-drinking white girl, chances are you despise it too. Once a honest form of storytelling and self-expression, today’s country music, infused with cookie-cutter pop,  thrives on sucking money out of rednecks that crave subpar, interchangeable songs about tractors, cold brews, and farmer’s daughters (this song by comedian Bo Burnham masterfully details that phenomenon). However, on his latest record A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, crooner Sturgill Simpson proves to the world that country music can still be sincere.

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is Simpson’s third full-length LP and his major label debut on Atlantic Records. His 2014 album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music turned heads due to Sturgill’s interesting fusion of traditional rootsy country and mild psychedelia. While this release was a solid effort, Sturgill’s sound reaches true maturity on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. 

In a fury of brilliant dynamism, Sturgill swings between sonic opposites on the new record. One moment he and his band are volcanically explosive, the next exceedingly tender. One moment playfully charming, the next extremely somber. One moment minimalist, the next decked out with lavish instrumentation.

These dichotomies come to life on the opening track “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)”, which introduces the record with twinkling piano arpeggiations and a tasteful, gorgeous string arrangement. Truthfully, the only thing sturgill-simpson_0sounding “country” during the song’s first verse is Sturgill’s buttery Southern drawl. The lush instrumentation eventually wells up in splendid, tearjerking crescendo as Sturgill sings about the birth of his son: “Wish I’d done this ten years ago/But how could I know, how could I know/That the answer was so easy?” I’m only 20, but that shit makes me want to become a dad tomorrow.

Sturgill draws heavily on funk and soul influences on the new record. On the track “Keep It Between the Lines” and the latter half of “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)”, the band lays down instrumentals that I could hear James Brown hopping on top of, complete with funky bass lines, blaring horn sections, and infectiously danceable grooves. As well, the track “All Around You” is a simple, pleasant old-school soul ballad.

Of course, Sturgill still flies his psych rock flag high on A Sailor’s Guide. The second cut, “Breakers Roar”, is a hushed, melancholic lullaby, featuring reverby, silky acoustic guitar, ethereal strings, and spacey slide guitar. Sturgill’s dreary, mumbled vocals on the track remind me of those on Nirvana’s restrained ballad “Something in the Way”. The heartfelt love song for Sturgill’s wife, “Oh Sarah”, employs the same minimal, heavenly production, but Sturgill pushes his voice into the track’s forefront, delivering an impassioned, dynamic vocal.

Speaking of Nirvana, Sturgill and company perform an incredible psych country rendition of the band’s 1991 smash hit “In Bloom”. Sturgill’s version is about as laid-back as Nirvana’s is abrasive. The track features woozy, huge_avatarsparkling keyboard embellishments that would have fit nicely on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). But perhaps my favorite part of this rendition is the slight alteration to Kurt Cobain’s original lyrics: “But they don’t know what it means to love someone”.

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth also sees Sturgill unashamedly embracing his Southern roots. The closing track “Call to Arms” is an outright southern rock banger, complete with a rootsy groove and energetic vocal performances from Sturgill that bemoan the horrors of war. I also love the Skynyrd-esque guitar solo and twangy vocals on “Sea Stories”, a song driven by a easy-going drumbeat and sleek, strummed acoustic guitar.

The record’s one true blemish rears its head on “Brace For Impact (Live A Little)”, which is surprising as it was the album’s lead single.  The song features forgettable melodies and a slinky guitar riff that becomes more and more bland and monotonous as the track moves along. To make matters even worse, Sturgill and friends make the ill-advised decision to jam on this groove in an extended outro. Know when to quit, guys.

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a concept album revolving around Sturgill’s newborn son. The lyrics are generally advice Sturgill gives his boy, but the record also includes pervading anti-war and sea life themes. Sturgill urges hissturgill-simpson1_custom-1fc997fa740562b360de811454a0f507463b4e9b-s900-c85-2 son to walk the straight and narrow on “Keep It Between the Lines”, but still encourages him to “live a little” on “Brace For Impact (Live A Little)”. “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” and “Breakers Roar” reveal Sturgill to be guilt-ridden over missing moments of his son’s life while away on tour.

Tracks such as “Sea Stories” and “Call to Arms”, the former of which details Sturgill’s time in the Navy, caution the boy against enlisting himself. The latter song contains one of my favorite lyrics from the record: “Well son I hope you don’t grow up/Believing that you’ve got to be a puppet to be a man”. Besides a few silly lines and lyrically clichés, Sturgill’s words are pure, honest, beautiful poetry.

Sure, it ain’t a perfect record, but A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is the best goddamn country album I’ve heard so far this century. Let you who proclaim country the worst genre in music listen and be amazed.

Overall: B+

Instrumentation/Production: A-

Lyrics: B+

Melody/Hook: B+

Performance: B+

Mixing: A-

Highlights: Welcome to Earth (Pollywog), Call to Arms, Breakers Roar, Keep It Between the Lines, Oh Sarah, In Bloom

Key Lyrics:

“Wish I’d done this ten years ago/But how could I know, how could I know/That the answer was so easy?” from “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)”

“Grandfather always said God’s a fisherman/And now I know the reason why” from “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)”

“But they don’t know what it means to love someone” from “In Bloom”

“Well son I hope you don’t grow up/Believing that you’ve got to be a puppet to be a man” from “Call to Arms”

“Do as I say/Don’t do as I’ve done/It don’t have to be/Like a father, like his son” from “Keep It Between the Lines”

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