Sound & Fury
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
And now for something completely different. While not quite as radical as Lou Reed unleashing the dissonant, experimental, guitar assault of 1975’s Metal Machine Music on an unsuspecting public, Sturgill Simpson takes an equally drastic and potentially fan alienating musical turn with the startling Sound & Fury. If his previous Grammy winning 2016 A Sailor’s Guide To Earth pushed boundaries with its lush orchestrations, jazzy horns and Nirvana cover, this one demolishes and confounds any audience expectations. Certainly Simpson’s 2019 song, the honky-tonking title track to Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die flick, didn’t prepare anyone for this.
It doesn’t take long for the concept to kick in. Opening Pink Floyd-styled instrumental “Ronin” with its quicksilver David Gilmour influenced lead guitar over pumping space-rock beats could be from any prog rocker, but not Sturgill Simpson. Trace the driving electronics of “Sing Along” back to ’80s new wavers The Cars, New Order and the Stone Roses with only Simpson’s reverbed vocals an indication of whose album this is. The heavy synthesizers driving “Make Art Not Friends” (perhaps that should be this album’s theme) are straight out of the Tangerine Dream-meets-Kraftwerk Euro-pop songbook. The riff-heavy “Best Clockmaker On Mars” features husky synth-guitar interplay sounding like Jack White on serious psychedelics. And if the listener makes it through, there’s the closing seven-minute drone of “Fastest Horse in Town” with its squalling feedback and thudding percussion to send you on your way. Oh, and all tracks have associated Japanese animated shorts, available elsewhere.
David Bowie crafted his art around confounding fans and many may see this as emulating that. It’s an understatement to say the album’s audacious tone and approach will take some getting used to for Americana fans. But those with open minds and an affinity for ’80s sounds should warm up to this unanticipated, intense but generally enticing music.