In Sturgill Simpson's A Sailor's Guide to Earth, he takes on the role of a celestial, fatherly voice, in attempts to reconcile hardships and provide redemptive wisdom to his two-year-old son. A Sailor's Guide to Earth is, in many ways, a concept album that draws upon the spirit of Simpson's adventurous, wandering stories in a way that is just as much autobiographical as it is a way of doing what he can to help map out his own son's world. There is a timeless, paternal quality to that approach, and he's willing to put every battered and worn part of him in full display in a tremendous artistic devotion to his son. He's found seamless fusion of easygoing country and orchestral, romantic chamber pop, and combined it with such a focused and genuine trajectory for the album, that it makes for a story of fatherhood so easy to resonate with.
By taking huge influence from a studio setting and larger band arrangements, Simpson has found a way to create country and blues through a postmodern lens, full of cinematic and sappy moments and an extraterrestrial feel. He's created a character for himself that is less human than it is ethereal and wise beyond the years he tells his stories from.
There's fantastic, gritty instrumentation which provides the perfect muddy murkiness for the waters his sailor will be navigating. It stays true to his style of dirty blues while doing so much more. A Sailor's Guide to Earth has a narrative that demands that the album be listened to in full, at least for the first time or two, for it was carefully crafted in that experiential way. It's a reinvigoration of the open-hearted stories that have made Americana music the iconoclastic genre that it ought to keep living up to be.
"Welcome To Earth (Pollywog)" begins with the sounds of alien abduction and a celestial, David Bowie-esque chiming piano melody. That sort of cosmic adventure stays within the atmosphere of brooding and thunderous chamber pop as a cinematic string section comes in after an orchestral drum boom. Right from the beginning, it's easy to see that Simpson can channel his heartfelt earnestness through moments of chamber pop walls of sound, followed by a fusion of southern rock and motown in a way that complements his anthemic, energetic singing. The opening track is as open as it gets. It's a full-forced proclamation of the devotion he promises to his son,
"Breakers Roar" begins in an equally chamber pop-esque fashion, ripe with an orchestral intro and soundscapes that sound as though they're coming from some eerie body of water. Despite the heavy layers of music, Simpson's musicality is sharp and crisp as he recollects that early nursery rhyme to describe the loneliness and isolation he felt out at sea after his stint in the Navy. There's lots of word painting in the weird synths he throws in periodically, and things continue to have that alien feel to them.
"Keep it Between The Lines" and "Sea Stories" continue to follow the disenchantment and sadness Simpson experienced as a member of the Navy, talking about how alien the regions of the world he visited were, and the heaviness of his deployment feeding into his alienation from his adventures. "Sitting on the high seas, feels just like being born what seemed like a sailor's paradise turned out to be a bad dream." "Seeing the whole damned world from the inside of a bar." He ends "Sea Stories" triumphantly after recollecting his drug addiction getting him kicked out of the armed forces with his adamant anti-war declaration: "Flying high beats dying for lies in a politician's war."
In his Nirvana cover, Simpson completely paints over "In Bloom" with his own brand of sensory experiences of alienation and eeriness in a fantastic display of layered bluegrass ripe with sappy strings and creepy leads. The only thing that seems to give off a tinge of anything reassuring is his soothing voice as it carries the music. The way he completely changed the chorus to be sweeping and uplifting compared to the original shows just how imaginative covering music can be. This song captures a very murky and complex emotional depth that can only be explained through a listen.
"Brace For Impact" begins the album's delve into telling Sturgill's son of the fleeting but always-present questions in life. It's a gritty blues track that delves into something a bit darker, or at least a different kind of bluesy, smoky darkness. Lyrically, it's like he's actually explaining death to his son for the first time, and the simplicity of his storytelling is incredibly fitting, as heavy as it is. The soloing sounds like something from Pink Floyd as it transcends into an existential and cosmic void while still maintaining the creepiness that's so inherent within it.
"All Around You" follows suit with that heaviness, delving more into the psychological troubles one will face at some point or another. He maintains that same omnipresent character within this song, which is such a crucial part of this album.
The positioning of "Oh Sarah" on this album is an enigma given that every other song was in some way a direct communication to his son. I suppose that the vulnerability and weakness he chooses to outpour to his wife within the song aren't things he wishes to shelter his son from, because the permanence of the bond to his wife shines through without doubt. The heartbeat rhythm is a very nice touch at the beginning.
"Call to Arms" ends with another, final, proclamation against going off to die in a useless war. He revisits the damage done by his stint in the armed forces, perhaps as a way of signifying the lasting hurt he deals with after those years.
While this album is brief and feels fleeting in its brevity, there's so much presence on the album that it's hard to stop listening at any given point. In the abrupt style of storytelling it captivates, and leaves nothing unanswered.