This second album from Sturgill Simpson lives up to the promise of his debut. Producer Dave Cobb is again behind the desk and together they have explored the fringes of traditional country music. This doesn’t mean that Simpson has strayed into the county-pop, southern rock and rap infused territory that seems the sound de jour in Nashville right now. Instead this is something more visionary and mildly lysergic. It was recorded quickly with his road band came off the road after a series of live dates. It is sharp, tight and most definitely countrified.
At the heart of this is the voice and songs of Simpson. The voice has the ring of authenticity, of someone steeped in the music he and his family grew up listening to. His phrasing may suggest some classic country singers but he is very quickly developing an individuality which makes him as distinctive as some of the singers he most admires. His need to move on and develop his music so that he is not repeating himself at this stage in his career is crucial to his progress. This second album is fundamentally coming from a similar place as High Top Mountain. There is a reflection of lives lived, emotion in turmoil, induced visionary experience but with a heart grounded in love.
The opening song, Turtles on The Way Down, is accompanied by a video that is a visual equivalent of the sound. The lyrics here talk of “alien reptiles” and equally spacey drugs as well as Jesus, Buddha and the devil. That’s just the first song - not too many tan lines or tailgates here folks. So we have a tight country band, a strong singer, an off beat set of lyrics set in a world that is somewhat out of this world. From then on we take in a Life of Sin, Living The Dream, the Long White Line of life through to the final testament that It Ain’t All Flowers. Amen to that. The band here may not include such former A-teamers as Hargus “Pig” Robbins, who graced the debut, but they do an equally good job of making the album a strongsonic experience. Laur Joamets on guitars, Kevin Black on bass and Miles Miller on drums are joined by keyboard player Mike Webb and producer Dave Cobb. Together with Simpson on acoustic guitar they deliver the goods in an organic and unforced way.
The are two outside songs among the ten tracks here (there’s an acoustic hidden track at the end). Buford Abner’s trucking song Long White Line and a version of the band When in Rome’s The Promise and both fit perfectly on the album, showing that Simpson can easily deliver a credible and creative take on a song he loves just as he does in his live set. The Promise is a sad ballad played straight and is a perfect act of contrition that serves to show the emotional depth and soulfulness of Sturgill’s vision. This definitely connects with Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, another album from another time but one that also had it’s own vision. Comparisons abound with Simpson’s voice but there is as much bluegrass influence in it as there is straight country. A certain soulfillness also plays it’s part in shaping such a powerful vehicle.
There are moments of the elemental in the sound - like at the end of Long White Line and especially on the (official) closer It Ain’t All Flowers where the full flavour of psychedelic sonics are unleashed musically and vocally and thus ending the album the same way it started with a “what the hell was that!” question that will have you coming back to the album to experience it’s many pleasures a metaphysical pain killer.