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If you’re going to be an outspoken loner, it helps have a “WTF?” pass. A “WTF?” pass is when a person has tacit permission from the public to say and do whatever they want, without fear of the repercussions that would visit anybody else. Howard Stern has a “WTF?” pass. Charles Barkley has a “WTF?” pass. The current president of the United States, of course, has one as well, at least from half of the country.
The power of the “WTF?” pass is that people expect you to do the unexpected — which, in essence, makes your provocations secretly expected. What would be surprising is if they weren’t shocking. We want those in the “WTF?” club to push boundaries, subvert norms, and strike against those who (we imagine) would be offended by such transgressions. They are technically rebels, though, in reality, the only real rebellion would be going the straight and narrow.
In popular music, there are precious few of these figures left. Frank Ocean is one — we will happily watch him for hours on a livestream working on his carpentry because we appreciate that this is truly a “WTF?” move. And then there’s Sturgill Simpson, the most mercurial artist in modern country. The prodigal outlaw who shuns the outlaw label, which only fortifies his outlaw cred. A man who was nominated for Album Of The Year just three years ago, and yet has minimal presence on country radio and has shown even less interest in catering to the industry forces who greatly determine mainstream success.
Whether he likes it or not, Sturgill Simpson has a brand, and it entails being the eternal contrarian who not only crosses genre lines with impunity, but also brazenly upends the corporatized conformity that shoves artists into tightly regimented audience niches. His fourth album, Sound And Fury — the first since 2016’s Grammy-feted A Sailor’s Guide To Earth — will be broadly classified as country because that’s how Simpson himself is classified. And that’s based almost entirely on the traditionalist bent of his 2013 debut, High Top Mountain, and the fact that his breakout second LP, 2014’s psychedelic exploration Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, has the c-word right in the title.
But the brawny southern soul and jam-band signifiers of A Sailor’s Guide should have put all that talk about “outlaw country” to bed. Instead, he was awarded a Grammy for Best Country Album. So, now Simpson is back with Sound And Fury, which arrives Friday accompanied by an original Netflix anime film made with Kamikaze Douga animation studio founder Jumpei Mizusaki and Afro Samurai creator Takashi Okazaki that Simpson has compared to the 1961 Akira Kurosawa film Yojimbo, except set in a dystopian future. WTF, indeed.
As for the album, Simpson described it in a New York Times interview as a “sleazy synth-rock dance record.” The song he likely had in mind is “A Good Look,” the album’s delirious fourth track. The song typifies Simpson’s eclectic, seemingly counterintuitive, but always assuredly confident approach on Sound And Fury. Credited as a co-write with the great Middle-American singer-songwriter with John Prine, “A Good Look” is hardly the amiable back-porch strummer you might anticipate. Over a rapid-fire Giorgio Moroder-style disco groove, Simpson rips a wild solo for nearly a minute before he sings a word. (One thing that Simpson didn’t mention in advance: Sound And Fury is his guitar-hero album. He shreds on nearly every track.) It sounds like something that Michael Mann would use to score a high-speed boat race.
Like the rest of Sound And Fury, “A Good Look” plays like a thought experiment, in which a wild-eyed Waylon Jennings hears ZZ Top’s Eliminator in 1983 and decides to make his own synth-boogie rock record. Surely there will be hard-core fans who object to this … I guess? Is it possible to know and love Simpson’s music and not anticipate that he’d make an album like this? He was, after all, name-checking Tool and Skrillex as early as 2014. And here he is, five years later, opening his latest album with “Ronin,” a sprawling instrumental cut with his uninhibited guitar playing over a deliberately paced rhythm section, like Fear Inoculum by way of Pink Floyd’s Animals. Later, Simpson pivots to full-on electro-pop on “Make Art Not Friends,” weaving his guitar amid vintage sci-fi synths like he’s Alex Lifeson on an early ’80s Rush record.
Not to belabor the point, but anyone who thought that Simpson would make another down-the-line throwback record in the style of his debut was either delusional or not paying attention. Now with the benefit of four albums as a sample size, it’s clear that Simpson was never going to stay an archetypal Jackson Maine-esque country troubadour. On the contrary, he’s a stylist preoccupied with sound, even when his lyrics are expressing fury over the music business.
Each of his albums create their own sonic worlds, roughly corresponding to a different decade. High Top Mountain was his ’50s country record. Metamodern Sounds was his ’60s Cosmic American Music record. A Sailor’s Guide was the swampy “let’s get funky like Little Feat” ’70s LP. With Sound And Fury, Simpson has made his Stranger Things album, an homage to the ’80s that draws on that era’s pop, rock, metal, and, yes, even country signifiers.
Nevertheless, some will wonder whether Sound And Fury is a mere provocation, even a goof. Simpson has talked about how miserable he was during the lengthy support tour for A Sailor’s Guide. In the aftermath, he severed ties with much of his behind-the-scenes support team, and he’s dialed down the promotion considerably for Sound And Fury. Is he just trying to turn his fans off?
I honestly don’t think so. Sound And Fury is just too damn much fun, almost in spite of itself. Yes, the album itself voices plenty of venom against the music industry. On the deceptively gorgeous “Mercury In Retrograde,” which sounds like ELO’s Out Of The Blue if it had been produced by Daft Punk, Simpson seethes about “journalists,” “sycophants,” and “haters” and how “living the dream makes a man want to scream / light a match, and burn it all down.” And yet for all of his dreams about escaping his elevated lot in life, Simpson has a contradictory impulse to keep going. “Watch and see, you’ll be looking at me / last man standing in the end,” he brags in “Last Man Standing,” an extremely catchy rocker that evokes the poppiest moments of Born In The U.S.A.
Perhaps it’s not that complicated after all. Simpson has an understandable distaste for the parasitic record business, and yet the business of creating records clearly remains a blast for him. While Sound And Fury — which Simpson produced with his backing band along with John Hill, co-writer of Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still” — has been sold as a kind of career suicide move, what comes through the speakers is loose, liberated, and deeply pleasurable. Whether he’s emulating the grandeur of David Gilmour on the majestic country-prog ballad “All Said And Done” or burning though the heavy riffing desert rock of the defiant closer “Fastest Horse In Town,” a hybrid of Dwight Yoakam and Queens Of The Stone Age, Simpson sounds like a man doing exactly what he wants, and getting away with it brilliantly. He’s just made the curmudgeon’s Golden Hour. Why stop now?
Sound & Fury is out on September 27 via Elektra Records. Get it here.
Sturgill Simpson is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.