Sturgill Simpson: SOUND & FURY
For those of you who don’t know Sturgill Simpson, this Grammy-winning country artist has been at the forefront of contemporary country, a modern Waylon Jennings, living and breathing and producing music that is truly of our decade. He’s got a Nashville twang and has been described as having “outlaw country leanings.” His music is cosy with commercial but still holds onto a classic 70’s style that has gained him fans across the nation. The music he makes is slick and well produced, with just enough edge to make everyone happy. He’s a solid artist, a great artist even, and his rock-and-roll style is breathing new life into the folksy country scene.
So it came as a surprise when Simpson, for his newest album, ‘SOUND & FURY,’ decided to drop a film to go alongside his tin can twangup vibes. Even more surprising was the decision to go with Japanese animation studios, giving them leeway to explore an apocryphal country vision. He apparently wrote the story, produced the album, and then gave the studios a lot of freedom with their work, allowing them to creatively interpret both music and characters through modern takes on the surrealist dada anime considerations popular in the mid-90s. Simpson has shown before that he’s not above poking fun at himself, allowing director Jim Jarmusch to use his single, ‘The Dead Don’t Die’ as the satirical theme song for a film of the same name, even appearing as “Guitar Zombie” in the production. SOUND & FURY takes Simpson’s “don’t get precious” attitude and runs away with it, throwing any sense of decorum to the wolves with a grin.
There’s no good way to describe Sturgill Simpson: SOUND & FURY. We’re going to try though. Think of a Samurai-inspired Mad Max showdown set in a Texas flatland, the main character serving us Ruroni Kenshin avenging swordsman-meets Lady Snowblood, who’s got a FLCL “fuck all of you, but not the individual” attitude tied up in Gorrilaz animation, all mixed together with Evangelion-style end of the world drama and Akira anti-authority outlaws roaming the streets. It’s absurdist anime at its peak, mixing styles, emotions, and storylines in a full-circle forty-minute extravaganza of music and visuals.
Sturgill Simpson, what were you on when you wrote this album? Where can I get it? Are you all right?
Let’s delve into the occult western fantasy wasteland that Simpson developed in SOUND & FURY. The story has ‘episodes’ throughout the film, but it’s hard to fully distinguish where one song ends and another begins. Only occasionally are there distinct separations, either in musical tone or animation style. The story follows a lone swordsman in a muscle car as they seek out injustice in the wasteland. Their kabuto (traditional samurai helmet) has an elaborate maedate (or crest) attached to the front in the shape of a stylized ampersand. We flashback to a sword shop in Japan, where traditionalist crafters are attacked by a mafioso and a poisoner clown. They kill the people working there, and then, additionally, they kill off a western-style cowboy and a stylized sword maker, who are implied to be the titular Sound and Fury. The samurai shows up, and using the blood of Sound and Fury, tempers two blades, sealing their souls inside the steel. Using these swords, he seeks vengeance against the men who slaughtered all the people on the mountainside.
The story gets a little more convoluted: the samurai we saw at the beginning comes back, and they’re a woman. We flashback again. The man who swore vengeance had a child, and when he went to kill the gunman and the poisoner, they have his daughter hostage. He’s killed, and the ghosts, Sound and Fury, restrain the two murderers and allow the daughter to escape unscathed, with the swords and her father’s body. The girl then travels to find the gunman and poisoner, taking revenge for her father and the embodied spirits of Sound and Fury.
With a few episodic interstitials sprinkled in, presumably the backstories of Sound and Fury, The entire thing culminates in an epic Furiosa vs. Immortan Joe showdown. The &-Driver gets to fight back, reclaim her history, and fights using the two oni-gundam/mecha-bikes possessed by the sword-bound souls of Sound and Fury. It’s an amazingly cathartic, extravagant, gasoline-fuelled fight to the death.
It’s wild y’all. Absolutely wild. I’m sipping the Sturgill Simpson juice and loving it. SOUND & FURY is a country-nightmare soundscape of banjos, synthwave new-pop, basslines, and heavy flipping drum beats. It’s an incredible ride through a variety of genres and ideas where Simpson takes country music, and drives over it like he’s Mel Gibson in 1980, and then takes it into a dark alley and gives it a pep talk before pushing country music into a Fast and Furious lowrider race for pinks and telling them, “Drive, bitch.”
This concept film was forty minutes of non-stop shifting styles, with violent and brutal graphics, coupled with animation changes and different productions that gave new visions to the story that Simpson wrote to accompany his hard-hitting rock and country album. Sometimes we’re first-person, like we’re running through different levels of a high-speed occult mecha-western edition of Grand Theft Auto, other times we’re watching a live-action music video, watching a girl skateboarding through smog-filled Japan in a hazmat suit picking up trinkets. The entire film is incredibly fun and engaging. Nothing ever stays the same for too long. We get just enough of an introduction to each episode to make the next thing seem a little less insane. There’s a lot of referential side-eyes to popular media that do not make SOUND & FURY feel derivative, but rather aware.
The music of SOUND & FURY is also incredibly good. When the hazmat skateboarder is riding through the I Am Legend Tokyo disasterland, Simpson sings about being lonely and friendless, showcasing beautiful emotions from the actress who searches for small vision of the past to fit into her collection of reminders of home. The mellow, lowkey, guitar with haunting lyrics and sweet sounds lulls us into complacency, just before we go right into a cord-slamming jamfest.
So what is Sturgill Simpson: SOUND & FURY? It’s the Japanese outlaw vigilante apocalypse. It’s as if Akira went down to John on Patmos and told him to take a break from gospel for a few minutes.
While some of the animation is minimal, or just additional to the live-action, the art is always really cool, and it allows us to receive two stories: one while listening to the music, and the other by watching the absolute madness that appears onscreen. SOUND & FURY is very much a collaboration produced in conjunction with Japanese animation studios and sensibilities. It feels authentic and real, and despite the strange mashup of country music and anime, the visuals don’t feel appropriative, but immersive and genuine. It’s a real bridge between two cultural structures that many have seen as being too inherently different to bring together.
SOUND & FURY is more than just a mechafest. It’s an antiauthoritarian warning against conformity and encouraging resistance. This outlaw anime album evokes feelings of despair, hope, terror, and destruction through innovative and beautiful speculative visuals. In one episode, we go through a biomecha dreamscape where men and women march on gears as Sturgil sings, “it all comes back around.” This particular chapter is excessively reminiscent of the Gorillaz’ ‘Demon Days’ album, referencing political unrest, personal power, and the country boy desire to resist authority.
So all in all, it’s good. It’s very good. It’s also hyper masculine and incredibly focused on men’s concerns with the world, despite the main character’s gender reveal early on. The entire production is hugely male, and it’s just absolutely no surprised that women weren’t involved in any meaningful way in this production at all. It’s so frustrating to see something like this happen on Netflix again, especially after the fallout around inequity that occurred around Love, Death, & Robots.
The final partings of SOUND & FURY are on two white-on-black cards. The first is a quote from Miyamoto Musashi, which reads, “Get beyond love and grief and exist for the good of man.” The second is an homage: “Dedicated to the lost souls and victims of senseless violence.”
It’s ironic that this is the final shot, after just experiencing an entire forty minute ride that’s all about exploring and enacting grief in violent, sometimes senseless ways. It’s a strange dedication to a bizarre, neon-lit fever dream of a film, and I’m not sure that the final words actually land. The catharsis of revenge stories is in watching the bad guys get their due outside of traditional justice systems. This is especially true in apocalyptic corruption narratives. These final words don’t feel matched up with the insanity of SOUND & FURY, and I think that it might fall into a strange satirical miasma where if things aren’t clearly laid out to be satire, many people will interpret it as a genuine narrative rather than a commentary.
Even with the final confusion of these words, overall the film produced by Sturgill Simpson, Netflix, and a good handful of Japanese studios is a remarkable, genre-bending, fuck off to country music tradition. It’s a fun, entertaining and mind-melting watch, crafting an intense and deeply emotional narrative, while also showcasing the grief and tragedy of living in a world plagued by bigotry, violence, and corruption. SOUND & FURY is truly a category-breaker-five in the world of country music, allowing for experimentation without being precious about your work, honoring story while also promoting perspectives, and allowing a cross-cultural pollination of ideas, thoughts, and sensibilities. The short film is a ride that promises more with a final “Stay Tuned” at the end, and I can guarantee you that Sturgill Simpson will be gaining more fans and more infamy once this madness breaks into the mainstream.
Linda H. Codega
Linda is a twenty-something millennial living and working in the Hudson Valley who loves fandom, pop culture, sailing, tarot cards, and crying in movie theaters. If you want to listen to them talk about pop culture, the repeating cycles of media, and those stories that we can’t get out of our heads, you can listen to their podcast, Retronym, on iTunes.