On a trip to the Outer Banks weekend before last, Mrs. YHT and I managed to HBO Go our way through the entire first season of True Detective. Have you seen it? Parts are hard to stomach, but overall it’s pretty damn fantastic, thanks in no small part to Matthew McConaughey’s character — a brilliant-but-damaged fish-out-of-water detective nicknamed “Rust” with a penchant for philosophical self-torture and a belief that “human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution.” He’s part deep South and part deep end, somehow managing to feel authentically in the dirt and in the clouds at the same time. I can’t remember a character like him, nor can I imagine a better spirit animal for the album I became enamored with a few days after Mrs. YHT and I got back from the beach.
This is the first I’ve heard of Sturgill Simpson, and I might not have taken notice had it not been for NPR’s First Listen and the album’s name (which I love): Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Ray Charles’ classic Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is one of the more frequently spun records at YHT headquarters, and Simpson’s twist was intriguing: Country music about country music. Now, I didn’t grow up listening to country, and the listening I’ve done in recent years hasn’t been comprehensive enough to chase away the feeling that there are allusions and in-jokes lurking in these 10 tracks that I’m not wise to — details that would lend additional credence to the “meta” piece of the title. The genre-bending aspects of the album — nuggets of psychedelia like fuzz, drug references, heavy reverb and panning sounds so they travel from your left headphone to your right and back again — feel plenty meta though, showing a desire to poke holes in the membrane that separates country from other styles. That said, there’s a meta moment that hits even closer to home for me, and while it comes and goes quickly, it shows how one tiny detail can open a whole other set of considerations, like a wormhole leading to another universe.
Listen to “Living The Dream” below and pay close attention around the 3:15 mark, when the force and frequency of Sturgill’s voice peak. Hear how the texture of the vocal track changes a bit? Like it’s being squeezed ever so slightly? I don’t know enough about recording to tell you exactly what’s going on, but my guess is that’s the sound of a
condenser compressor [Thanks to Partial Arts for the correction!] microphone — one that makes soft noises louder and loud noises softer — working hard to reign in the extra volume. I could be wrong on that, but I know for a fact that I’ve heard that sound before. It’s all over Aretha Franklin’s early recordings — especially the ones she did in Muscle Shoals. Take “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” Her voice is so powerful that she’s clearly maxing out the capabilities of the studio’s equipment. It’s the sound of a limit being tested. Her high end had so much punch in those days it was absurd, and you could forgive a studio engineer or microphone manufacturer for not having a solution for that — and it’s funny to describe Franklin’s voice this way — problem.
Pushing against a limit like this forces you to acknowledge that the limit exists, which in turn requires that you reckon with what’s on the other side. Those moments near the end of “Living The Dream” serve as a reminder that regardless of how sophisticated technology has become — how expensive the microphone or how flexible the editing software — when you step back, humans are still singing into cans in much the same way we were more than 100 years ago. It’s a funny exercise that’s come to mean so much to so many people, allowing us to travel in space and time and develop deep, meaningful relationships with ideas and cultures that would otherwise have been fleeting. Think about it — before recording technology, sounds would ring out and never be heard again. Ever. It’s either poignant or terrifying depending on how comfortable you are with your mortality. Yet here we are. Subverting nature. Poking at eternity. All with a can and some wire. (Makes Jack White’s Voice-o-Graph booth seem pretty damn cool, eh?)
Who knows whether Sturgill Simpson had any of this in mind when he was in the studio recording Metamodern Sounds — I doubt he went in there saying “I’m going to sound like Aretha Franklin and poke eternity on this one!” — but those four letters that kick off the album’s title open up whole universes of interpretation, and I wholeheartedly recommend stepping into its spacey goodness. I’m pretty sure Rust would as well.