I’m not sure if our readers know this, but my wife and I happen to have five young children (I think I’ve mentioned before how our life is descending into Little-House-On-The-Prairie-Madness). It also so happens that, in spite of being a parent, I am, like, super awesome and cool. I french press my home-roasted organic coffee, drink pints of my home-brewed bourbon stout while chilling to the sounds of Sigur Ros on my Bang and Olafsen turntable, and wear lots of bow ties. To that last one, the kids these days are now stealing my preppie look and I might need to move on because they are ruining it. Oh, well, at least I still have my Nantucket red trousers rolled halfway up my sockless ankles. No kid is confident enough to pull it off.
Moving on quickly [straightens bow tie, sips a bit of Chartreuse]. A hipster would never admit to being a hipster – that would be insane, and much less would an aging hipster claim any such nonsense. Because of this, there has grown up a category of music called Cool Dad Music. This is the music of the young, urban ne’er-do-well parent we often see at the farmer’s market. He can be identified by his giant, immaculately cultivated beard, tight pants, ironic sunglasses, and attendant mini-me. These are the people who grew up laboriously building their music knowledge and, underneath the layers of irony, they tend to be pretty sincere in their search for an authentic life. The search for beauty is real, and the garbage pail tunes of top 40 radio won’t do (Lemonade? More like Lemons. Am I right?). Sufjan Stevens is the touchstone, the metaphysical key, if you will, to the soul of these urban aesthetes. In the wild, you will also commonly find that #CoolDadMusic includes: The National, Arcade Fire, Springsteen (the eternal cool dad), the Avett Brothers, and Ryan Adams.
Now that they’re older and have discovered the joys of parenthood, #CoolDads still listen to cool music because we all know that art is essential to living well. We live art. We are art. And most of all, our children are our greatest work of art.
Musician Sturgill Simpson recently joined the club with the birth of his first child and he absolutely blows the doors off the scene with his new album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. This is the best music for dads since that time The National sang about how they’re suspicious that every single other adult in the whole world might be out to get their kids.
Hipster dads everywhere are currently jamming out to Sailor’s Guide tunes while they drive their kids to the performing arts charter school downtown (it’s pretty obscure, you’ve probably never heard of it).
In an interview with NPR, he talks about the genesis of the album, saying,
My paternal grandfather, when he was in the army in World War II — he was over in the South Pacific and he thought he was gonna die. And he wrote a letter to my grandmother and their newborn son, thinking he wasn’t gonna come home. And years later, after he was dead, and then once she’d passed, I was at her house and I just decided, ‘I’m gonna read this letter.’ And I probably learned more about him in those few pages than I ever could have sitting in a room with him. I remember going down the road on the [tour] bus one day and thinking, ‘What if I could just write a letter to my kid, telling him exactly who his dad was?’ Like, everything I’m going through right now, at this point in my life. It was just like, ‘Ok, I’m gonna go make this really pure and beautiful thing for my son…”
Simpson is unabashed about the nature of his art, and the writing is refreshingly direct:
Hello my son/ Welcome to earth
You might not be my last/ But you’ll always be my first
Wish I’d done this ten years ago/ But how could I know
How could I know/ That the answer was so easy
This isn’t music only for a narrow segment of dads. This is music about the source of creativity, the joy, the wonderment, and the overflow of love from which all art springs. Here we have in a nutshell the very genesis of beauty, the reason (as Woody Guthrie writes) men dream dreams and cities are built by hot, nervous hands. The creative act of making a child is the proto-artwork and it has clearly sent Sturgill Simpson’s into overdrive.
Artistically this album is a marked step forward from Metamodern Country Music (an album which I do like, and to be fair, has the most gorgeous cover of The Promise you’ll hear).
Whatever it means to be “Meta” (paging Dan Harmon) and whatever it means to be “Modern”, in the mind of Sturgill Simpson, it appears that the combination of the two equals unrelenting, totally naïve traditionalism. In other words, just the sort of art I like. Sailor’s Guide is even better, though, because it takes a step beyond being a traditional “country” album. Simpson is now far more ambitious. These songs are daring, sincere, and the production can be so very strange and beautiful. Simpson produced it himself, he had to, because he makes choices that would have left a professional producer curled up in the corner of the control room shivering like a wet cat. When the horns kick in, for instance, on “Welcome to Earth” it’s disconcerting, but listen again and the song is original, unorthodox, and the horns really, really work. I find myself listening to it again and again.
We’re not all parents, but we don’t have to be in order to obsess over this album because of the simple fact that we’re all capable of love. Love is universal and beauty is in the eye of the one who loves greatly. Simpson sings,
I’ve been told you measure a man
By how much he loves
When I hold you
I treasure each moment I spend
On earth, under heaven above
Grandfather always said God’s a fisherman
And now I know the reason why
The love of a man for another creature is a reflection of God’s love for his own children, the divine Fisherman who is out to hook humanity because he wants to hang out in his Ark with all of us. It is from divine love alone that the world was called into being, and to the extent that each of us learns to love we are drawn back to the source of our own creation. We learn the reason why we are born and love and die – the reason to create both children and art. Asked what the album is about, Simpson gives a one-word answer, “Love.”