Sturgill Simpson and his band recorded most of the new album “Sound & Fury” at McGuire’s Motor Inn in Waterford, just outside of Pontiac. I have no idea why he did that, or what a listener should expect from a record made at a motel in metro Detroit with an average Yelp rating of one star, but somehow it feels perfect.
“Sound & Fury” is a steamy beast of an album, a noisy, scuzzy kiss-off to the country music gatekeepers whom Simpson has made a career out of antagonizing. The centerpiece track is a swaggering scorcher called “Make Art Not Friends,” whose square-peg mixture of ‘80s New Wave and overdriven blues-rock is representative of the record’s stylistic boldness, and whose title could serve as Simpson’s epitaph whenever he finds himself in need of one.
“I love saying no to all the yes men, just to see the look on their face,” he sings on the track. “Think I’m gonna just stay home and make art, not friends.” At a time when genre boundaries mean less than ever, chomping at the music industry’s food-bearing hand is still kind of a bold gesture for an artist ostensibly working in the country format.
As explained in Ken Burns’ new “Country Music” documentary series on PBS, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, Nashville operates as a musical ecosystem unto itself, rigorously policing the politics and aesthetics of all who intend to call themselves country. So it’s probably the easiest genre in which to acquire outsider status. Simpson has achieved that distinction — call it “outlaw” if you must — by pretending country’s pop crossover never happened.
His breakthrough release, 2014’s “Metamodern Sounds In Country Music,” announced him as both a cagey traditionalist and a stylistic provocateur, snarling his way in a pinched tenor through a collection of defiantly untrendy honky-tonk stompers. Its trippy opening track, “Turtles All the Way Down,” sounded like it was induced by psilocybin mushrooms as much as the rural moonshine of Simpson’s native Kentucky. The most stirring song was a baffling cover of “I Promise,” a cheesy synth-pop track by the one-hit-wonder ‘80s act When In Rome.
Simpson’s subsequent record, 2016’s “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” was bigger and bolder, crafted vaguely as a concept album about his new life as a parent, with contemplative songs blown wide open by the horn section from soul-revival outfit the Dap-Kings. Its most indelible moment, again, was a cover, this time of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” previously unthinkable as a country ballad but, once heard, unthinkable as anything but.
“Sound & Fury” is yet another left turn. It appears as the soundtrack to an anime film of the same name that Simpson created with the Japanese artist Junpei Mizusaki, now available on Netflix. The visuals conjure a dystopian wasteland in which the survivors of whatever apocalypse subsist as cogs in an indifferent machine — common ground for anime but, again, less so for country — that doesn’t bother with subtlety in its presentation of Simpson’s worldview.
Clocking in at a brisk 40 minutes, “Sound & Fury” wastes little time and barely wavers in intensity. It’s a fiery rock record whose guitars are so omnipresent and high in the mix that I needed to take a couple of breaks. It’s presented as a driving album, literally and figuratively, beginning and ending with the ambience of a car radio — in a fashion reminiscent of Queens of the Stone Age’s “Songs For the Deaf” — and song transitions happen with the abruptness of an analog dial moving between stations.
The sonic detours take him in curious directions — from the aggressive funk stomp of “Sing Along” to the psychedelic kraut-rock explorations of “Mercury in Retrograde,” the most country-adjacent song here — but thankfully he rarely wanders far from the confines of his dirtball roadside motel.
Simpson remains one of music’s great wanderers, and “Sound & Fury” suggests there’s a lot of ground he still plans to cover, where no doubt he’ll make a lot more art than friends.