Sturgill Simpson Has Made The Groove-Heavy Guitar-Hero Album Of The Year

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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.