A gritty new sound
What you are expecting from Sturgill Simpson’s latest album Sound & Fury (stylized as SOUND & FURY) is probably not what it is. The artist has made a name for himself over the past few years by eschewing a traditional or stale approach to county music, but with Sound & Fury, Simpson goes off the rails. It’s gritty and bluesy. It’s Simpson at his most experimental so far. The album was released with an accompanying short film on Netflix directed by Jumpei Mizusaki.
Sturgill tells a story with the album, beginning with “Ronin,” the album’s opening track and overture. Curiously lacking in any singing from our bard, but it introduces the hard gritty driving rock sound Sturgill crafted for this album. It gets you asking What is this story about? This is a particularly apropos question, given the album’s title, which references two great stories from the English canon. In 1929, William Faulkner published The Sound and the Fury, whose title references a line from the great Shakespeare himself when Macbeth says that life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Simpson begins to answer that question in “Remember to Breathe” when he counsels to “just lay back” and “remember to breathe” as he paints a dark picture where he is “staying in the shadows.” The album’s second track flows continuously from the end of “Ronin.” Much of the songs on the album flow seamlessly from one to another like chapters in a book, differentiated but clearly working towards a single narrative.
With “A Good Lock” Simpson somehow ups the ante, taking his already heavy album into a controlled frenzy that’s on the verge of running away from him. The song is a meditation on making art and authenticity. “Everybody’s worried ‘bout a good look, but they need to be worried ‘bout a good hook,” he sings in the chorus, which admittedly has a good hook. The song’s ending builds until it almost reaches a climax and then abruptly ends with static to transition in “Make Art Not Friends,” another meditation on his artistic process.
Simpson wanted a change. Simpson sees “a world on fire” in “Make Art Not Friends.” “This town’s getting crowded…I think it’s time to change up the sound” he explicates. Like Macbeth, Simpson sees a world that “creeps in this petty pace from day to day.” The world moves forward, but somehow feels like it always stays the same, as “another cycle goes around.” These cycles are one of Simpson’s major preoccupations in Sound & Fury. The cycles Simpson cites are traps, but his art is his escape. A difficult task, however, like music, albums and songs are based on cycles.
“Best Clockmaker on Mars” offers one of Simpson’s best thoughts on cycles. Simpson offers a bleak view of his world through the album, but “Best Clockmaker on Mars” offers some relief. His resolution to “wake up every day and be the best clockmaker on Mars” could be understood to be a reflection of his hopelessness, the need for seclusion on the distant planet. Or it could refer to his attempt to construct his own model of the world. Mars cycles the sun on a different schedule than Earth; it has a different clock. Simpson finds hope in this alternative world to the one he sees.
Sound & Fury is a fresh sound for Simpson who is trying to find a new sound with weighty music and lyrics. The album’s bleakness is offset by a moment of light, but both are supported by Simpson’s talented guitar playing and strong voice. The album is “full of sound and fury” but neither “told by an idiot” nor “signifying nothing,” even you have to listen carefully to find what it means.