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Sturgill Simpson’s release radicalizes country music

Sturgill Simpson is a beauty in both lyricism and complexity. You may not have heard of him, but Simpson is a bit of a science dabbler, which places his latest release, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” as a rarity among country music.

What Simpson does with country music is what Gaga did to pop — a radicalization much needed by a decaying industry. “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” takes you on a waltz with the sea. A pirate-themed country experiment? Yes, please.

What makes this release so tantalizing for me is the way Simpson flirts and intermingles a wide variety of seemingly mutually exclusive genres. Classical arrangements of articulately swelling strings somehow weave their sounds into a 50s-style pseudo pop in the style of Elton John. Yet, the tunes still sound like they could fit in with the country crew.

It’s the creative process of this album that absolutely captures me. It’s like Conway Twitty sat down with Father John Misty to come up with a melancholic soul-inspired country dig that would blow the roof off of genre bending forever. And, somehow, Simpson does it all on his own.

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For the casual country fan, or even someone who doesn’t like country at all, there are a few tracks, such as “Sea Stories,” that sound like a saloon drawl you might hear at any Rib City, but a few songs hit hard with funky synth riffs, such as the ending of “Brace For Impact (Live a Little),” where you might forget what sort of artist you’re really listening to. One of the biggest surprises while listening through this conceptual masterpiece is a surprisingly astute cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” which finds new purpose in Simpson’s honky-tonk vocals.

Oh Sarah” is a song that fades in from the end of a more upbeat track, and the swelling strings and subtle organ seem like they would fit in place at a shipwreck graveyard. Like a sailor lost at sea, Simpson swoons on meditations of returning home someday.

What Simpson does to country music in this album should be echoed in other country-pop artists’ sounds rather than the washed-up swill of mixing hometown lyrics of pickup trucks and girls in daisy dukes and trying to incorporate rap (Florida Georgia Line is blasphemous). Simpson mixes science with Southern doctrine, and it’s a beautiful match made in heaven.

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