Over his first three albums, Kentucky maverick and Navy veteran Sturgill Simpson stretched the definition of country music in much the same way the '70s outlaws and '80s neotraditionalists once did. On "Sound & Fury" (Elektra), he's blown up even those generously wide parameters. As the album credits declare: "(Expletive) your speakers."
The album was recorded hit-and-run style in a motor inn 35 miles north of Detroit with Simpson's touring band. The goal, as he states, was to make "a sleazy, steamy rock 'n' roll record," in effect providing an outlet for a couple of years of pent-up frustration. The relentless touring after his 2016 release, "A Sailor's Guide to Earth," kept Simpson away from his family to such an extent that he questioned his career choice.
This isn't a self-pitying rant, but a raised middle digit to an industry, a world, that treats people like cogs in a machine, widgets in an assembly line. You don't have to understand a single word Simpson sings -- indeed, it's a challenge sometimes to hear Simpson's voice amid the instrumental chaos -- to know that he's fed up with pretty much everything.
Distortion-saturated guitars, synthesizers squealing like tea kettles and tribal drums give country tradition a swift kick in the back side. This carnage doesn't belong to a genre, it's more like a feeling: Side 2 of Neil Young and Crazy Horse's "Rust Never Sleeps," ZZ Top demos after three cases of Tequila in a Texas roadhouse, a hurricane.
The opening instrumental, "Ronin," sounds like it's fading out, only to burst out of its tomb back to life. A pattern develops: songs start and cut off in midsentence, as if what we're hearing is one long sonic exorcism chopped up into 10 songs. Bruised melodies poke through the din and a few vocals emerge relatively unscathed, glimmers of life from inside the storm.
In "Remember to Breathe," the narrator is "having a one-way conversation with the darkness in my mind, he does all the talking because I'm the quiet kind." Even the relatively contemplative arrangement in "All Said and Done" with acoustic guitar and chiming keys provides no relief: "Spent the last year goin' out of my mind," Simpson sings.
The singer gets friskier on "Last Man Standing" with its rockabilly zoom, and the new-wave springiness of "Mercury in Retrograde," but the closing "Fastest Horse in Town" slams the door shut with seven minutes of guitar-synth violence over thudding drums. The dirge-like tempo speeds up and hurtles to a close, a runaway train charging into the black.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
"Sound & Fury"
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