STURGILL SIMPSON – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (Atlantic): More a less a crude life handbook for his two-year-old son, the sailor of the album title who’ll explore the world (it’s a metaphor for life’s journey!) and part of a nautical theme that does not materialize, Simpson’s words of wisdom are pretty basic—stay in school, don’t do drugs, make sure to find someone you love more than yourself. All good advice if not particularly profound, and if Simpson had gone the route of attempting heart-wrenching acoustic bits it’d fall on its face, but his employment of both schmaltzy strings and honky-tonk horns helps cover for his strained earnestness and brings an appropriate level of dork-funk, respectively, all a sign he’s gotten more adventurous musically—which is good.
He gets more daring with his choice of cover this time around, opting for Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” which he changes from a tune poking fun at outsiders catching on to the grunge group’s burgeoning popularity to an allegorical warning about a guy who “don’t know what it means to love someone.” “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)” isn’t quite the space jam that “It Ain’t All Flowers” is, but it still lets loose his inner Skynyrd and is a near-sobering meditation on life and death. “All Around You” is a doo-wop ditty of sorts where Simpson acknowledges the best way to deal with wearying days is to, well, just deal, cuz God’ll be there or some such. Finally, he tells his son to steer clear of joining the military on “Call to Arms,” which doubles as a vessel for Simpson to shove in as much social critique as he can, from the dehumanizing methods of the army to sinisterly drone strikes to smartphone-glued civilians too busy eating Freedom Fries to care. I pretty much agree with the finale’s sentiment, but it’s the one misstep that’s almost unbearable—a little too much pandering, and not really insightful.
But what saves it in the end, and what lifts the album as a whole, is that despite some of its cheesier moves, Simpson injects a real purpose into the songs—a gift to his son, a token for him to hang on to when Simpson is inevitably no longer around to offer guidance. Putting aside all the no-brainer tidbits Simpson breadcrumbs throughout A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, the bigger takeaway he leaves for his boy is that life is an unnavigable sea—never a way to tell where it’s going and rougher for some than others. The best advice you can get, then, is try to do good, because what else can you do? A MINUS