Country musician Sturgill Simpson stands out from the herd in a number of ways—his interest in theoretical physics for one thing. How many country musicians salute Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking in their liner notes? He’s also well versed in comparative religion. The Washington Post said Simpson “sings about the bardo of Tibetan Buddhism in the baritone of Waylon Jennings.”
It’s that mellow, expressive baritone that has made Simpson’s new album a commercial success, in spite of his unorthodox approach. Raised in small-town Kentucky, Simpson absorbed traditional sounds into his bones before collecting obscure influences across the musical and philosophical spectrum. The result is Metamodern Sounds in Country Music—an odyssey into vintage country territory, jazzed up with an R&B organ and healthy splashes of psychedelia.
“Turtles All The Way Down” is a marquee example of his eclecticism. Warm, loping bass and snappy strumming create an easy-going mood while Simpson croons about seeing “Jesus play with flames in a lake of fire that I was standing in / met the devil in Seattle and spent nine months inside the lion’s den.” Lest you think Simpson is carrying forward the country tradition of respectful—if quirky—biblical references, Jesus and the devil are just part of a carnival cast of characters that includes Buddha and “reptile aliens made of light” who “cut you open and pull out all your pain.”
But if Simpson has jettisoned the beliefs of traditional religion, he can’t quite divest himself of its sounds. “A Little Light Within” shows a fondness for the good old honky-tonk gospel. Hand clapping and a shuffling back beat drive the quasi-traditional lyrics: “Through all these earthly trials of sorrow / through all these days of mortal sin / … Got to stay on the straight and narrow / and find a little light within.” Despite its similarities to gospel, the song is really a hymn for the agnostic ramblers who “don’t need no compass map or chart … don’t need nothing but a little light in my heart.”
Simpson’s folksy, down-home charm imbues his unbelief with the power of the everyman. But listeners needn’t take him too seriously. While he rejects “fairy tales of blood and wine,” in other places he references God and eschews the emptiness of materialism. That’s why his album title is a canny one. “Metamodernism” is a cultural phenomenon often dubbed post-postmodernism, characterized by a rejection of absolutes and relativism—a sort of quantum flux between the two.
The sheer variety of ideas and his playful handling of them show he hasn’t committed to anything—his true theme is restlessness. “It Ain’t All Flowers” shows Simpson “cleaning out the darkest corners of my mind.” Backwards guitars eerily convey how self-discovery “ain’t all flowers / sometimes you gotta feel the thorns / and when you play with the Devil you know you gonna get the horns.” With all his exploration, Simpson confesses in the opening track the simple fact that “Love’s the only thing that ever saved my life.” Christians can pray this talented man will build more on that foundation.