Album review: Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth

In a rare suitable for work moment, Urban Dictionary defines ‘pollywog’ as a boy growing up without a father. Another definition, stemming from the Middle English ‘polliwog’ meaning tadpole, has a pollywog as a young sailor crossing the Equator for the first time.

Telling, then, that the first song on Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is named Welcome to Earth (Pollywog). This love-song to his firstborn sets the tone for an album conceptualized as letters home from sea, just as Simpson’s grandfather wrote to his wife and newborn from a war he didn’t expect to survive.

Coming to life with bells and vibrations, the song then settles into a soothing heartfelt lullaby: “Hello, my son/you may not be my last/but you’ll always be my first.” Without warning, the Dap-Kings’ explosive horn section kicks in half way through, introducing a deliciously unexpected Motor City Mowtown-style soundscape.

The album continues to ebb and flow stylistically. Much has been said, rightly so, about Simpson’s sensitive, languorous cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom. There is also the dense country drawl of Sea Stories, the strings and seagulls of Breakers Roar and the brassy, old-timey wild Western track Call To Arms. This shifting between and within songs could lead to cacophony in the wrong hands but here it works. The juxtaposition of the dark and the joyous, a duality familiar to fans of Shovels & Rope, is handled skillfully.

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is vocally and lyrically deep, framed as advice from father to son – the pollywog who will face long periods without his father present. It soon becomes clear that the maritime references have personal resonance following time in the U.S. Navy, and that longing for loved ones left behind is a contemporary concern for Simpson as an itinerant touring musician.

Fans of John Fullbright and Jason Isbell would especially appreciate Simpson’s songs of separation and experience which touch on love and loss, religion and addiction, and dreams and reality.

Tour update: Sturgill Simpson is touring the UK, including London’s Shepherds Bush Empire on July 15 and Latitude festival on July 16.  Details at http://www.sturgillsimpson.com/tour  

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