Anyone for metaphysical prog country? Nashville songwriter heads for the stars…
He might have the hard-hit voice and the classic outlaw sound, but Sturgill Simpson is anything but predictable. The swift arrival of this year’s second release, following on from debut High Top Mountain, is evidence of both a febrile mind and keen work ethic. As Simpson told Uncut prior to its arrival: “Making conceptual pieces is a goal for me. I’m sitting on about five albums, but people are gonna think I’ve lost my mind with this next one.” “Turtles All The Way Down” lets you decide from the off. Informed by the work of Dr Rick Strassman, who explored the para-psychology of people on DMT, it’s a suitably cosmic meditation on life, the multiverse and anything left over. The song itself sounds like Jimmy Webb taking liberties with “Suspicious Minds”, Simpson musing on a realm “where reptile aliens made of light/Cut you open and pull out all your pain”. It’s a wonderfully disarming way to begin.
Not that fans of his previous album, with its echoes of Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, will be short-changed. Simpson may have been devouring the works of Carl Sagan and Terence McKenna lately, but this record’s beauty lies in the contrast between time-baked country tropes – loneliness, the road, broken hearts – and his starry adventurism. “It Ain’t All Flowers”, for instance, is an anguished Nashville ballad coated in distorted guitar and backwards FX. At its core Simpson reveals himself to be a writer rooted in tradition, but refusing to be tamed by it.
He’s no slouch when it comes to interpreting others either. His version of “The Promise”, originally by ’80s synth-wave types When In Rome, is one of the most striking things here. In Simpson’s care it becomes a tender hymn with a surging coda worthy of George Jones. It’s just one of many high spots on an album that reaffirms his status as an outstanding new talent.