At the Troubadour, country disrupter Sturgill Simpson confounds fans, loudly
Sturgill Simpson was characteristically plainspoken Sunday night when he told his audience at the Troubadour why it had been nearly a year since he’d played his last full concert: He and his wife recently welcomed the third of three young sons, explained this disruptive roots-music star, which inspired him to quit the road to stay home and “chop firewood” in southeast Tennessee.
“I figured they should know what the f— their dad looks like,” he said.
The rationale suited a songwriter whose 2016 album, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” pondered the joy and the pain of fatherhood on its way to winning a Grammy Award for country album. What the explanation left out, though, was that Simpson, 41, also seemed to need an escape from his own success — from its encouragement of a simplistic view of his music and from the expectations it created for whatever he chose to do next.
But maybe he didn’t mention that because he knew his songs would make his feelings clear.
Simpson’s new album, “Sound & Fury,” which came out Friday, is a bracing indictment of the phoniness and stupidity he evidently encountered in the wake of the Grammys, where he began his acceptance speech by noting that just a few years earlier he’d been working on a railroad in Utah. Over thick, churning Southern rock far noisier than the homey country sounds on his previous records — think ZZ Top in the mid ’80s rather than Waylon Jennings in the mid ’70s — Simpson sneers in his strangled drawl at the “journalists and sycophants” who invade his tour bus and describes the pleasure he takes from “saying no to all the yes-men just to see the look on their face.” (The latter lyric comes from a tune called “Make Art Not Friends.”)
Ironically, the result is a proudly rebellious record about refusing the record industry’s attempts to make Simpson the new face of so-called outlaw country.
“If you’re wearing a cowboy hat and you heard the record and you came anyway, thank you very much,” the singer said at the Troubadour, where he and his durable live band — bassist Chuck Bartels, drummer Miles Miller and keyboardist Bobby Emmett — played “Sound & Fury” from front to back. The show was the first date in a brief U.S. tour benefiting the Special Forces Foundation, which provides assistance to veterans of the armed services and their families. (Before the railroad in Utah, Simpson served in the Navy.)
It was also part of a fairly elaborate rollout for the new album, which comes accompanied by a Netflix film that sets Simpson’s songs to anime sequences overseen by some of Japan’s most respected directors. Since he finished recording “Sound & Fury,” the singer has gotten deeper into movies, acting in Jim Jarmusch’s recent “The Dead Don’t Die” and in the upcoming “Queen & Slim” opposite Daniel Kaluuya.
You can look at these pursuits as the spoils of the very showbiz glad-handing that Simpson rails against in “Mercury in Retrograde,” which rhymes “traveling trophies and awards-show stands” with “all the haters wishing they was in my band.”
But consider the roles Simpson has been attracted to — a zombie in Jarmusch’s movie and a hotheaded white police officer who pulls over a black couple in “Queen & Slim” — or the various struggles against authority depicted in the Netflix film, which he told the New York Times is about “hegemonic structures, politics, corruption, greed.” Clearly this isn’t a guy merely searching for glory onscreen than he can’t get onstage.
On Sunday he seemed to acknowledge that “Sound & Fury,” with its cranked tempos and harsh electronic textures, might not be what some fans want from him. After telling the crowd he planned to play a handful of older tunes to finish the night, he offered this warning: “Don’t be surprised if the old” stuff “sounds like the new” stuff.
The way he sees it, an artist’s responsibility is to reflect the world he or she lives in — and right now, he added with an unprintable flourish, the world is messed up.
That meant extra jolts of guitar fuzz for the once-gentle “Turtles All the Way Down” and “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” and an anxious-funky reggae groove for “Breakers Roar,” perhaps the loveliest cut on “Sailor’s Guide.” And for the songs from “Sound & Fury,” he and his band further bulked up riffs and beats that are plenty muscular on the record. His goal, he said, was music that “sounds like the noise in my head when I watch the news.”
Yet even in his rage he was unpredictable. At one point in the show Simpson lowered the volume to sing a pair of vintage ballads — “I’d Have to Be Crazy,” popularized by Willie Nelson, and William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” — that he’s been doing for years, since long before the yes-men began haunting him.
Both were completely gorgeous; both made happiness sound like a rare but attainable resource. Perhaps Simpson was thinking of getting back home again.
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