(A brief, imagined interview with Sturgill Simpson)
Q. Hey, outlaw country fella Sturgill Simpson! What's your new album, Sound & Fury, like?
A. Well, it's loud and distorted and sleazy and has songs about how I don't really care much for the music industry. It's also not really country. Imagine Eliminator-era ZZ Top and Radiohead at a Nine Inch Nails concert. And it's a soundtrack to an anime movie I made with some really cool directors from Japan. Any more questions?
Q. Yes! Ummm, what made you want to ...
A. That's enough. I'm gone.
(End of imagined interview)
Seriously, there might not be a more head-turning release from an established musician this year than Sturgill Simpson's Sound & Fury, the album and soundtrack to the Netflix animated film of the same name that came out last month.
The alt-country champ's last record, 2016's Grammy-winning A Sailor's Guide to Earth, was a tribute to his newborn son and was packed with soulful, Southern rock and a sweet, string-filled cover of Nirvana's "In Bloom."
All Simpson ever really had to do was keep making records like that or his 2014 breakthrough, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and he'd be the latest incarnation of a critically beloved, slightly off-center, New Balance-wearing Waylon Jennings.
But no. He's too smart, or ambitious, or grumpy for any of that. So we get this new album and movie, and they are good things.
First, the record.
Made quickly with his touring band at a studio in Detroit, it's all blown-out synths and guitars, with Simpson's baritone fuzzed up and buried in the mix. Lyrically, he goes after the Nashville mainstream and the usual music biz jerkies -- "You know they don't like it when you take a stand," he sings -- and hints at leaving it all behind.
The weary, misanthropic "Make Art Not Friends" starts with pulsing electronica that sounds a little like Pink Floyd before morphing into a synth-driven lament that wraps its sadness in a buzzing, infectious melody and makes shutting the blinds and staying inside sound like the perfect anodyne for a world becoming ever wackier.
"All Said and Done" opens with the line "Spent the last year going out of my mind," and Simpson spends the rest of the track pondering a life away from an endless cycle of demands.
"The Best Clockmaker on Mars" is a ripper that sounds like Marc Bolan if he were a 22nd Century Boy, and "A Good Look" was co-written with John Prine and references a SOCOM Scout and a bug-out bag.
Strip away the distortion and the defiant "Last Man Standing" could be the kind of country rocker that makes you drive too fast and sing along off-key; "Mercury in Retrograde" is a dancy track that starts with a tale about a haircut in Norway before Simpson sets his sights on glad-handing wannabe friends and the haters who want to be in his band. When he sings that the tour is almost over and he will be home soon, you can almost feel his relief.
Yes, it can be hard to sympathize when a successful musician starts singing about how hard life is when everybody wants to be your friend and your job is playing all these concerts and writing all these songs and soaking up all that admiration. It makes you want to tell them to go lay brick for a few weeks and see how they like that.
But, you know, empathy and all. And Simpson, a no-nonsense Navy vet, sure as heck ain't after our pity. He's got some issues with some things and he's working them out in these grungy songs that sound so much different from his other stuff. Good for him and us.
Sound & Fury the animated movie, which has no dialogue, can be thought of as an extended music video. A main story, written by anime fan Simpson, is directed by Jumpei Mizusaki (Batman Ninja) with character design by Takashi Okazaki. It follows a young samurai seeking revenge for the death of her family at the hands of two ruthless villains in a futuristic wasteland -- Mad Max: Fury Road meets Cowboy Bebop.
Early on, during "Sing Along," the revenge plot gives way to an extended dance montage that is as trippy as it is delightful.
The film unfolds as the album does, with each song serving as a soundtrack to a short movie. The setting is dystopian and violent and stories from directors like Koji Morimoto, Elsa Nakamichi, Masaru Matsumoto, Henry Thurlow and others seem to wander away from the main narrative. The styles are different, too, not unlike David Fincher's animated anthology Love, Death & Robots, which is also on Netflix.
Opening with the instrumental "Ronin," the animation is almost hyper-realistic; "Remember to Breathe" has more of a watercolor look; "Make Art Not Friends" riffs on Wall-E with a live-action female skateboarder in a hazmat suit picking up tchotchkes on the street; "All Is Said and Done" is a dark, brutal vignette about prisoners and a plan to escape.
They all work beautifully and seamlessly.
Stick around past the credits that start during the final track, "Fastest Horse in Town," to find out what happens to the samurai daughter and her bloody quest to avenge her father's death.
Simpson is working with Avengers and Thor writer Jason Aaron to turn Sound & Fury into a graphic novel for Z2 comics, with the publication date set for next September. He has also taken on some acting gigs -- playing a zombie in Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die and a cop in the forthcoming Queen & Slim from director Melina Matsoukas. Here's hoping his next musical project will be as adventurous and rewarding as Sound & Fury.
CORRECTION: The headline in this story was updated to correct the spelling of Sturgill Simpson's name.
MovieStyle on 10/11/2019