“I love to say no to all the yes-men / Just to see the look on their face,” crows country-music disruptor Sturgill Simpson on a pulverizing new tune that is literally titled “Make Art Not Friends.” And what I’d really love right now, if he wouldn’t mind, is a detailed list of every single stupid industry suggestion the Kentucky native has said no to in the past six years of defiant semi-stardom, such that his fourth album, Friday’s Sound & Fury, is accompanied by a blood-soaked Netflix anime film that bears the same name and is in fact so disruptive that he’s no longer making country music at all.
This hard pivot was definitely not somebody else’s suggestion. “This town’s gettin’ crowded / Truth’s been shrouded / Think it’s time to change up the sound,” Simpson warns earlier in the song, and Sound & Fury is, indeed, a sleazy and industrial-strength Rock ’n’ Roll record, a dystopian update of ZZ Top–style swamp boogie from a charismatically standoffish guy who’s got middle fingers and knows how to use them. The 41-minute album (and anime film!) is bizarre and unexpected and spectacularly hostile and quite a good time so long as you accept that Simpson would love to see the baffled look on your face, too. “It’s gettin’ hard to find a good friend,” he observes. “So close the door behind you.” That’s on your way out, not your way in.
Sound & Fury’s opening track, “Ronin,” kicks off with trudging footsteps, a quick spin through a car-radio dial, and a roaring engine that dead-ends into a lengthy, blazing guitar solo, the muscle and grit and studly lost-highway ambiance recalling nothing so much as Queens of the Stone Age’s 2002 hard-rock masterpiece Songs for the Deaf. (QOTSA is a major influence here, both the extra-robotic old stuff and extra-funky newer stuff.) While this guitar solo rages on, the Netflix anime flick also out Friday, if you were curious, kicks off with a leering villain in a fancy suit invading a monastery with a pistol and blowing the heads off various monks and whatnot, all while spraying clouds of nefarious purple mist about. It’s pretty rad and absolutely, gloriously baffling.
How the hell did we get here? This is country music’s putative outlaw savior? This is the guy, in fact, who won the Best Country Album Grammy in 2017? (His third album, 2016’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, was in fact also up for Album of the Year, though it got squashed by Adele, as were we all.) It is instructive and also quite amusing to return now to Simpson’s debut, 2013’s High Top Mountain, a juke-joint riot of weeping pedal steel and furious twang and his own endearingly bombastic baritone. And thus did the rapturous comparisons to Waylon Jennings and so forth rain down from the heavens, and indeed, compared to the sound and fury to come, High Top Mountain feels like it’s transmitting from a different galaxy entirely. And yet, and yet, the album kicks off with a song called “Life Ain’t Fair and the World Is Mean,” which kicks off with Simpson roaring this:
Well that label man said, “Son now can you sing a little bit more clear?”
Said, “Your voice might be too genuine and your song’s a little too sincere
Can you sing a little more about outlaws and the way things used to be?”
He told me, “You just worry about writing them songs leaving everything else to me”
He has been violently opposed to the outlaw badge, and the hordes of industry yes-men eager to pin it on him, from the very beginning. Simpson broke out in 2014 with Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, a warmer and druggier affair (see “Turtles All the Way Down”) that remains my favorite record of his for the decidedly uncool reason that his cover of the ’80s synth-pop classic “The Promise” is incomprehensibly beautiful. He cashed in all that critical goodwill (and monetary label-goon goodwill) to make A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, a luscious and opulent country-soul space odyssey that sounded amazing live. That record kicked off with “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” a planetarium folk anthem torn between new fatherhood and newfound road-warrior stardom that’ll still have you in ecstatic tears long before the horns kick in.
By 2016, of course, fellow outlaw-adjacent throwback Chris Stapleton had been installed as Nashville’s official avatar of authenticity, and Simpson appeared to be, if not next in line, then the throwback belter so authentic Nashville would never quite embrace him, which is an even cooler lane to be in. Simpson in fact waged a casual one-man protest outside the 2017 CMA Awards after the quote-unquote Country Grammys snubbed him, busking and collecting donations for the ACLU and holding forth on such topics as Trump (no) and gun control (yes). It surprised me that he gave a shit about the CMAs at all, but his orneriness was delightful regardless.
Yet now, the rebel has rebelled, and specifically exploded any notions that he was a Nashville rebel in the first place. “I could’ve very easily probably made the same record five times by now and just gone right down that middle lane and played it safe, and I’d have $80 million in the bank,” Simpson told The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica last week. “And I’d probably be hanging from a [expletive] rope on one of these trees over here by now, you know what I mean? So it’s not worth it.”
What will immediately strike you about Sound & Fury, then, is the fury. “It’s ‘fuck all y’all’ season,” he declares, on the blues-rock rave-up “Last Man Standing”; “Havin’ one-way conversations with all the darkness in my mind,” he mutters amid the ominous Black Keys fuzz of “Remember to Breathe.” Simpson is, notably, a happily married father who only first found success in his mid-30s, so this is not quite a vicious-lone-wolf situation: “Some days I hate everything I am / But your love holds a mirror to me,” he bellows, amid the snarling guitars and rock-organist swoops of “Best Clockmaker on Mars.” But he shows no mercy to the suits who still hound him and the hands that theoretically still feed him.
Indeed, on the slinkiest and funkiest track here, a disco-rock jam called “Mercury in Retrograde,” he chops all those hands off at the wrist. “They come backstage and on my bus / Pretendin’ to be my friend,” he laments, with they referring to, among others, “all the journalists and sycophants buildin’ their brands.” Whoops! The song sounds delightful, a future line dance classic for the fanatically line dance–averse, but the sentiment expressed here, in no uncertain terms, is Stay the fuck off my bus.
Simpson described Sound & Fury to the Times as a form of “therapeutic indignation,” with very specific visual and sonic reference points: “I wanted it to hit like a Wu-Tang record.” The result is, in fact, much stranger than a Wu-Tang record, or at least far more unexpected, not to mention outright hostile to anybody—including, yes, you—with the audacity to expect anything from Simpson at all. The record ends with a calamitous, slow-burning rager called “Fastest Horse in Town” that sounds like Buddy Guy jamming with Metallica, and the conundrum here might be that if everyone loves this radical new direction too much, and too loudly, then Simpson will promptly respond by never returning to it ever again.
So enjoy this riotous new direction while it lasts, with the caveat that the burdensome expectations your joy might create will affect how long it lasts. (As for the Netflix anime, also out Friday, I like the sequence during “Make Art Not Friends” where a skateboarder in a hazmat suit traverses a ghost town looking for little trinkets and decorations to bring back to an underground bunker, like a live-action adult version of WALL-E. All the decapitations are dope, too.) What we’ve got here is a fiery and outlandishly lovable guy who insists on being loved from afar. Like, extra afar. On two consecutive songs, Simpson worries that all this stylistic and temperamental volatility is pointless: “It’s all been done two or three times anyway.” But not like this. Let him cook. Just don’t expect a seat at his table for the meal.