Been getting to the bottom of the bottom getting to me
Holding up the mirror to everything I don’t want to see
But it ain’t all flowers
Sometimes you gotta feel the thorns
And when you play with
The Devil you know you gonna get the horns
That visceral howl WHAH-HOOO-HOOO-HOOO in the grungy, swirling psychedelic track It Ain’t All Flowers closing out Sturgill Simpson’s sophomore album hits a gong deep in the heart. There’s pain & the outlasting/pyrrhic defeat of pain in the howl… a 21st century rebel yell from the wrong side of Appalachia… a wolfman made of used-up ore howling into void… only an ex-coal-country man’s howl could resonate like that. Every time it makes me wince; it’s a cry that stings you.
That authentic texture, something deep and real in the layers of sound … that is what makes Sturgill Simpson’s latest album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music so interesting and special.
It also makes the album needful of hi-def. Without, at bare minimum, good headphones and big-pipe streaming, the music is flattened, sound is removed, you lose layers, the resonances, and that howl doesn’t seem interesting and goes right past you. The album lends itself to hi-fi analog, to vinyl, so it’s no surprise the first pressing of 10,000-vinyl Metamodern Sounds in Country Music records seemed to sell out instantly.
Spotify gets you closer to hi-fidelity sound than most:
It wasn’t until I was 11 or so when I learned that not all country music is awful, woeful crying, guys bemoaning what they’ve lost over sorrowful tunes. Lost mah truck, mah woman and mah dawg. I started to realize there’s more to country than that, that some country is good, with instrument-playing talent high.
An understanding of folk and country is essential to have cultural literacy, common points of reference, etc., as an American; in Stephen King’s novels there are repeated references to Hank Williams Sr. lyrics, to throw up one example. But as a Southerner, understanding country can be crucial, and a healthy appreciation of country can be a social gateway to the South’s biggest musical fandom.
My favorite country nowadays is the more bluegrassy, rockabilly, and folk stuff—throwback folk like Old Crow Medicine Show, indie country like Steve Earle. So Sturgill Simpson is right up my alley.
I rate Metamodern Sounds in Country Music as the must listen country album of 2014 because of the rockabilly country swirled with grunge walls of sound, intricate but never cluttered or overkill-y. It stays straightforward. And most of all for its originality, that it covers unusual subject matter to put it mildly.
In Voices, Simpson contemplates the useless voices of self-doubt, the vapid voices of junk news media, and more (it’s layered). And in the lead-off track Turtles All The Way Down, he lists some of the mind-expanding psychedelic drugs that went into creating the record, following this gem of a stanza…
Bet you didn’t expect THIS in that Kentucky hills accent:
“There’s a gateway in our minds
That leads somewhere out there, far beyond this plane
Where reptile aliens made of light
Cut you open and pull out all your pain”
—Turtles All The Way Down
When the above ^ was played on NPR, I’m sure that listeners worldwide did spit-takes, let the car slip into the wrong lane.
Doubtless the Turtles All The Way Down music video was NOT in the rotation of music videos on CMT. And that Sturgill Simpson detonates country music norms is what makes him so interesting and unique.
I judge every element of an album with the mix, instrument-playing, musical arrangement, lyrics, etc., all having weight. My music reviews don’t hinge solely or predominantly on vocals, which is mostly how music is judged today in the age of The Voice, X-Factor, American Idol, et al.
Sturgill Simpson’s low, East Kentucky hill-man’s country drawl might be jarringly unfamiliar or off-putting for some, especially for ya dadgum Yankees; for me it’s familiar – very like North Carolina hills or North Alabama accents. B+ for vocals.
I give Metamodern Sounds in Country Music five out of five rabbits for the sonic tapestries offered, wall of sound-ish but with few instruments, uncomplicated. It Ain’t All Flowers is probably the best example; it closes the album on a front porch-philosopher contemplative note of resignment… psychedelic keyboards—think vaguely funereal Incense & Peppermints—create a dark descending spiral of notes, not as much alt-country on acid as it is acid on country… If you “listen small,” catching the small details and beautiful things, you’ll find a lot to love in Metamodern Sounds.
And, foremost, for its exploration of heretofore-untouched topics. The freshness is super appreciated; hopefully country music will grow some cojones and greenlight more unconventional country albums and offer us fewer cringe-worthy regurgitations of endlessly rehashed country clichés.
You can listen to the album here for free (via Spotify) or above (also via Spotify).
SCORE: FIVE BUNS
ND-RRR (Nick Dupree Rabbit Rating Reviews)
Still waiting on dem luminescent lizard surgeons from outer space to descend for my pain-ectomy.