There was a window there, back in 2014 and 2015, where it seemed like Sturgill Simpson was going to be the single Grim Reaper for Bro Country, the guy who’d walk tall and wipe out guys named Chase and Brice, by bringing back whatever his country-focused fans considered “real” country. Metamodern Sounds in Country Music was his breakthrough LP back then, an album that sounded enough like Waylon to make you think it was 1975 again, and enough like 2014 to make you want to go to his shows and take drugs (DMT, Simpson would prefer). But something happened on that path to glory and Florida Georgia Line turned into a line of heads on pikes: Sturgill didn’t want to be the king of shit mountain, and when he signed to a major label, delivered A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, an album that was many, many things — a guide to life for his son, one of the best albums of 2016, nearly perfect — but not the album that “saved” country music like everyone expected. Instead, Chris Stapleton took that “real country” throne (while writing hits for Thomas Rhett, it ought to be noted; even he hedges!); now the country dudes need beards and songs about dirt to get ahead, and god knows Sturgill isn’t interested in that bullshit.
So, while pop country reckons with the fact that it still doesn’t play enough women, and worries about Lil Nas X being on their charts, here comes country’s former savior to stomp the remaining bits of that Martin guitar-fashioned crown of thorns to dust. Sound & Fury, his fourth LP, is decidedly not even a country album; this is like Motorhead making a concept album about Mad Max: Fury Road, a ZZ-Top album made on glass, like KISS making an album set in the American mid-south, and one of the best songwriters of his generation entering his concept album phase. There’s an anime film that accompanies Sound & Fury that tells, through the work of multiple directors, the story of a protagonist who [SPOILER ALERT] takes on mob bosses and rises up to vanquish them all. There are ambitious left-turns, and then there is Sound & Fury, an album inspired by Macbeth that whips total ass in a way most rock albums don’t in 2019.
Sound & Fury’s acerbic guitar playing and frustrated, fuck-the-system lyrics got their start, as Simpson told the New York Times, in him feeling drained and not inspired following a tour after A Sailor’s Guide won the Grammy for Best Country Album. He holed up in a studio north of Detroit, and since he was on his last album of his deal, decided to get raw and rough, and challenge the idea that his music was going to change the world, or country music, or that he was an important figure who people needed to hear talk about such things. “I spent the last year going out of my mind / looking for reasons that I could not find,” Simpson sings on “All Said and Done,” a song with a 400 megawatt guitar solo, which might as well be this album’s mission statement. He targets the sycophants and journalists pretending to be his friends on “Mercury in Retrograde” and reminds himself to calm down and let his life happen on “Remember to Breathe.” Simpson mentions in that Times story that he’s old enough to remember what life was like before fame, and he’s preparing to be a normal guy again, and this album could very well serve as his record career’s epitaph.
We all hope that doesn’t happen though. If fame and expectations can lead Simpson to making an experience — that’s what Sound & Fury is, in totality — as riveting to experience as this one, we need to, as a group, move out of his way to let him create another one on his own terms. No more savior, no more demanding him to save country music; just letting him make Album of the Year contenders without expectations.