Editor’s Note: This is going to be a review for both the album and the movie. If you have a passing interest, go ahead and watch the movie cause you won’t be disappointed. I am going to go spoiler rich here, and I think going in blind is the best way to consume this thing. And now on with the show.
And here we are. Sturgill Simpson‘s new record, a follow up to his Grammy-award winning A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, my pick for best album of 2016. And holy shit did we haul in a beast here.
The biggest takeaway reviewers seems to have is “ERMAGERHD, ITS SO NOT COUNTRY.” Two things on that. First, Sturgill is a fucking amazing musician. If he wants to cut a Polka record, I am here for it. Whatever he wants to do, he gets to do. Second, a change in sound should come as no shock at all. Sturgill basically shattered through the wall making a brass heavy country album last time. Its clear he isn’t just going to do High Top Mountain over and over.
So what we have here is a record that is on the spectrum between Japandroids, T-Rex, and Kyuss. Bigly wall-of-sound guitars, synths, and bass. Rushing forward. He is trying to compete with the Modern Lovers for the best album to listen to while you are driving through the night. And this is the world this album plays in.
But, I digress, lets start with what hasn’t changed.
The lyricism is still just as fucking strong (even bringing in country legend John Prine in on this track). The album is painting the picture of a dystopian world that readers of this blog should find very familiar. For example, A Good Look above is quick to throw you into a world collapsing that you can dance to (I especially love, “Got a couple heads in my bug out bag.”)
Also on point, the actual song composition. He has some really strong melodies here, and built some fantastic individual songs. His ear for melody has not weakened at all.
My complaints on this record are pretty much down to two things.
1. Did we need to go full Chocolate Jesus with the vocals on this record? I understand we are going for an A E S T H E T I C here, but the vocals really melt in the wall of sound. I understand we dont need to hear every god damn thing, and I get how art works. But sometimes its annoying. Like on the lead off single Sing Along (above). I think its just too much to have that on every fucking track here.
2. This sound didn’t blow me away like A Sailor’s Guide did. It just didn’t feel as inventive. A Sailor’s Guide was something completely special, and felt totally original. Sturgill wears his influences on his sleeve here, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But I just felt like some of the stuff in the first half of the record could have cooked more. It felt a bit more bland like how some of the songs on High Top Mountain were, if they were, you know, big ass guitar rock.
I want to be clear here. This is not a bad album at all. This is real fucking good. I just dont think it is as magnificant as either Metamodern Sounds or A Sailor’s Guide. In fact, once you get to Make Art not Friends, the album really picks up. I think the last half of this record is MUCH stronger than the first.
I think this is my anthem for 2019. It is in fact Fuck All Yall Season.
The last half feels more focused and really biting to me. And that last track….damn….
Sturgill always KILLS IT on the last tracks of his albums. The one here is no exception. Strong as fuck. In fact, I was telling my wife my feelings on the record when that last track kicked in, and I said, mid sentence “Holy shit…maybe I feel stronger about this record than I thought.”
Overall, I have a feeling this one is a grower not a shower. Sturgill’s 808s and Heartbreak. What I mean by that is that I am going to keep going back to it. I have a feeling this one will age like a fine wine. Its already out only on friday and I think I have listened to it all the way through about 6 or 7 times.
3/4 – This one will move up to a 3.5 out of 4 eventually would be my guess, but 3 is where I land on it at this point. Its a great record, but it is a bit middle of the road. To paraphrase what someone said of Rush once, Sturgill’s middle of the road is someone else’s left field.
This was honestly the thing I was dreading the most. An full anime album film to go with this record. What is Sturgill doing? Has he gone full Weeaboo? The music video (above) did not help things. I didn’t see Batman Ninja, but I saw the trailer. Not making me stoked about this.
Let me be clear. Anime is fine. Its just lately, internet people seem to be acting like its the second coming of art. And its not.
So, I sat down with the liquor and prepared myself to go through this thing.
HOLY SHIT, am I EVER glad to be completely wrong. This thing is fucking looney toons, insane. Completely batshit.
First off, lets get this out of the way. This thing is not one anime narrative through. Its alot more like a Mulholland Drive or Waking Life. Its a series of vignettes connected ostensibly through a main plot. But, thats not really the main thing, its more just letting it wash over you.
Junpei Mizusaki makes the amazing decision to make each song have its own animation style (ala Animatrix). And that really helps liven this thing up.
Its 100% clear Junpei didn’t want this thing to be a throwaway attachment to the record, but something you had to experience along side it. Its also 100% clear he loves the record and wanted to make something just as bombastic.
The segments and transitions here are phenomenal. I will highlight two. The segment for Make Art Not Friends is the most poignant and well put together. Its a tender apocalypse story that feels right at home with the best of them.
But, the main one I want to highlight is the segment for A Good Look. HOLY SHIT, I dont want to spoil it but the transition and where they end up going is exactly what they needed to do. Its completely right, I didn’t see it coming at all, and it is the best fucking thing I have seen all year.
So if you skipped to the end score, what is it getting knocked for? Well its a bit of a spoiler so go see the movie. BUT
Its what he did with the last track
Junpei did two things with it that I didn’t like. First, he ran the credits for the whole movie over the lead in. Second, he decided to continue the story he cut away from to go into A Good Look.
I dont know why you would do either. With the final track, he has another opportunity to make a great piece, but instead it feels cheap compared to the rest of the thing. Don’t get me wrong, its interesting to see how that story would end, but like, compared to the other content here, it feels like he just wasn’t interested in making something original for the last track. As a result, its disappointing. At least to me.
3.5/4 – This got so close to being the mandatory way to watch it. I would say it is still great watching for the two segments I mentioned above, but is not as singularly cohesive as it could be. Entirely due to his decision on the last track. Regardless, THIS is the way to consume this record. If you haven’t heard the album yet, go watch the Netflix movie.
Closing thought: I want to see this live. I have a feeling this stuff done live will really make it pop. Its good, but not quite great.