It was clear from the start of Sturgill Simpson‘s debut album, High Top Mountain, that he is a very talented guy, perhaps the best country rocker/honky tonker to have pressed wax for a good decade or so. High Top Mountain only hit the UK earlier this year, several months after its Stateside issue after Simpson being picked up by Loose Music (who by now must be cock a hoop with his follow up). So Metamodern Sounds In Country Music has the benefit of High Top’s slipstream which along with Simpson’s recent tour of the UK and his appearance on Jools Holland’s Later have meant that his profile is up there. Nevertheless even without these Metamodern Sounds In country Music stands out from the crowd with its breathtaking swagger and sonic bravado. There’s an element here of Simpson reclaiming country from the tattooed hunks currently littering the American charts with pop songs and autotuned voices as if he’s saying “I’ll show you how to do it.” It’s significant that the album title is a nod to Ray Charles’ bold venture into the genre back in ’62, Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, another game changer.
At its core the album is traditional country with Simpson’s Kentucky drawl impossible to imagine in any other format. His voice still recalls Waylon Jennings and several of the songs have the punch and grit of the Outlaw movement with some brilliant strangled guitar and clanging pedal steel, best heard on Life Of Sin and his cover of Moore and Napier’s Long White Line (from their album Songs For All Lonesome Truck Drivers). Whereas the first album was almost dominated by such on’ry and mean fare on Metamodern Sounds Simpson expands his palette to include country Gospel on A Little Light while he again proves to be an excellent balladeer on Voices and on the album’s other cover, an eighties synth pop confection The Promise (originally by When In Rome and which featured at the end of the movie, Napoleon Dynamite) which Simpson transforms into a stone cold country ballad which sounds as if it was written by Kris Kristofferson.
So far so great but Simpson tops and tails the album with two songs that hark back to the sixties miscegenation of country and rock including cosmic sounds and mind bending substances. Turtles All the Way Down is introduced by an ancient voice (Simpson’s grandfather) before a Kristofferson like dusty tale of transcendental encounters ambles into view like a cosmic cousin to Sunday Morning Coming Down. As the song progresses the lyrics get weirder as “reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain” and Simpson litanies a pile of hallucinogens before realising that love trumps the pills. As he recites this some wonderfully old fashioned sonic gimmickry such as phasing and mellotron whoosh in giving the song a feel of The Byrds (or even The Monkees) in their psychedelic phase as The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Simpson seems to be alluding here to his past when he dabbled with drugs and his ongoing interest into the likes of Terence McKenna but reading interviews with him one gets the impression that this might be one big cosmic joke. Whatever there’s no denying that it’s a magnificent song that opens the album in a fine style. Simpson returns to the sound effects for the closing song, It Ain’t All Flowers with backward tapes and flanging as he again confesses his past misdemeanours before the song mutates into a country cousin of The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows with stereo panning and all sorts of psychedelic stew thrown in. Excellent.
There’s a bonus song tossed in at the end, a pleasant ditty called Panbowl which somewhat spoils the grand finale that is It Ain’t All Flowers but it’s a minor inconvenience. Essentially after track ten there’s a compulsion to start again to find out what Turtles All the way Down is about and then to just listen and savour what is essentially a great album.