Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music gave him a rep as the “way out of mainstream country formulas, of Americana’s staid streak, [and] of indie rock’s occasional preciousness.” He did it by mixing in elements of straight-ahead rock and soul, plus extolling the benefits of psychedelic drugs on his perspective, the evils of narcotics, and the trump card that love has on all intoxicants. Between the subject matter and the genre experimentation, it was a breath of fresh air to country listeners. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Simpson’s newly-released love letter to his new son, takes that sonic melting pot even further.
For instance, the opener spends almost three minutes on string-heavy balladry before an abrupt switch changes to doo wop—like a slower “Shout.” But, perhaps a better example would be the meshes that are a bit smoother. “Breakers Roar” is all strings and that country-ballad slide guitar effect, but they’re done up to feel more “dream”-y than you expect from the genre; it almost leaves you with the emotional response of shoegaze. Then that barrels into “Keep It Between the Lines”’s unabashed funk-rock with screaming horns and dueling guitar solos. That’s used to tell his kid ‘stay in school, don’t do drugs’:
Don’t turn mailboxes into baseballs/Don’t get busted selling at seventeen/Most thoughts deserve two or three more/Motoroil is motoroil/Just keep your engine clean/Keep your eyes on the prize/Everything will be fine/Long as you stay in school/Stay off the hard stuff/And keep between the lines
It’s nine tracks of father-son advice, so it’s all pretty family-friendly (both in sound and word). Country is mixed with other genres both fit for radio and suburban, outdoor music festivals that soccer-moms can take their preteens to. But, the preteens would probably rather see their favorite PG-13-bordering-on-R pop artist; it’s mostly music for the moms, and maybe the younger kids.
This becomes clear on the sterilization of “In Bloom.” Reimagining heavy songs in a milder light can yield beautiful results, but, let’s be real: this version sounds cheesy. However, when Simpson meshes genres more smoothly, it works out in a way that could truly appeal outside country audiences. For instance, the ‘everything-in-moderation’ anthem “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)” would sound perfectly at home on a The Black Keys record.
But, of course, the target audience is supposed to be Simpson’s son alone. Most of the messages can be gleaned from the title alone: Sturgill wants his son to “Live a little,” but “Keep…Between the Lines” and “stay away off the hard stuff.” He wants his son to be avoid becoming a pawn of war (“Call to Arms”, “Sea Stories”) and to prepare for depressive adversity (“Breakers Roar”). Hopefully his son and fans alike take this advice to heart.