STURGILL SIMPSON – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (High Top Mountain ’14): Ray Charles’s seminal album had a distinct purpose—it reinvigorated some rather hum-drum country standards, and in a few cases (“I Can’t Stop Loving You” especially) became the new standard—artists are just as reverent to Charles’s “Hey Good Lookin’” in their covers as they are to Williams’s, if not more. It also proved that country wasn’t exclusively a white genre; Charles could do it just as well if not better than any white contemporary. Which leads me to this simple question: Simpson’s album is meta how? Because he sounds like an updated version of Waylon Jennings? Because the “informed naivety” and “pragmatic idealism” in his songs reference a set of philosophical ideas I had to Wikipedia? Or because he stole most of Ray Charles’s album title for no discernable reason other than intrigue?
Look, I want to believe Simpson is a good guy and that this album is more than a clever trick. He has a good voice and writes a good tune and sure as hell sounds sincere to me. But Charles Manson was also sincere, so the mere appearance doesn’t cut it. I understand being a country singer doesn’t automatically obligate him to conform to storytelling stereotypes, but without the infusion of story or anything beyond talk of drug benders and religious mysticism, we have to assume Simpson’s depth because we can’t feel it. I’m being a little harsh, I know, but it’s frustrating that this album isn’t better when it easily could be, not to mention that I have my suspicions about people who speak almost exclusively in abstractions the way Simpson does—about religion and fatherhood and love and marriage, all important things in life (whether or not you engage in them)—so forgive me for keeping up my guard when he offers no concrete details about anything in his life and is so unsure of which words to use that he has to borrow a song (“The Promise”) about not knowing which words to use to communicate that he doesn’t know which words to use. That’s meta all right. But I’ll bet it’s not the kind he intended. Pretty good cover, though. B PLUS (***)