An unfortunate consequence of this generation’s overuse, and misuse, of the word genius is that when a work arrives that actually is deserving of the distinction, it instead feels like hype when the tag is applied. This is not hype; Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a genius piece of music.
If the distance between Nashville and Memphis is 210 miles, Simpson travels it in five minutes on the opening “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog).” Crooning patiently over a blanket of strings that peels back to unleash a blistering horn section, he skillfully pulls soul into country and country into soul. It’s a pattern that plays out across the album, sequenced without breaks for a contiguous Side A and Side B, as “Breakers Roll,” a beautifully calm ballad, folds into the parental advice of the groovy stomping and womping “Keep It Between the Lines.” An advising narrative of life in the Navy follows with “Sea Stories,” then dissolves into the unexpected “In Bloom.” Much will be made of Simpson covering the Nirvana classic, simply because of its novel choice, but the real accomplishment is how seamlessly the song fits into the overall scheme. In his hands, it’s as moving a rendition as anything on the record, shifting its shape from pedal steel to wall-of-sound horns, and a vocal bleeding with passion. If there is one thing Simpson’s dulcet tone can do time and again, it’s move a song.
Side B begins on the nighttime rock and roll single “Brace for Impact (Live a Little),” into the Saturday night slow dance of “All Around You,” built on a metaphor of being lost at sea, rescued by love. Simpson, who wrote and produced the set, does so with such a balanced and knowing touch, it’s hard to believe it’s his first go-round in the captain’s chair. And, on this his major label debut, no less. His instincts are maybe best showcased on “Oh Sarah,” a darkly textured tribute to love that captures that elusive emotion with simple eloquence, singing, “So forgive me if sometimes I seem a little crazy, but goddamn sometimes crazy is how I feel.” Left only is the closer, the speed racer “Call to Arms, baring influence from T Rex’s “The Motivator,” a song Simpson had incorporated into his previous tour. Part political rant, part social comment, and all parts gear jamming, accelerator to the floor, nothing to stop us into sunset, that brings bagpipes, steel guitar, the Dap-Kings horn section, and a whole lot of serious fuel for the fire.