Sturgill Simpson performs at the Black Cat. Simpson is donating the proceeds from his tour to the Special Forces Foundation, a group that provides assistance to veterans and their families. (Photo by Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)
What’s music today? Do you think of it as an inexhaustible mystery-substance that we squeeze out of mini black monoliths directly into the privacy of our skulls? Or is music still a crowded room filled with shaking air and fellow shook ones? These felt like pressing questions during Sturgill Simpson’s powerhouse performance Monday at the Black Cat in Washington, where the apostate country singer played his new rock-and-roll album, “Sound & Fury,” front to back, lean and mean.
To understand how great this show was, you have to understand how bad the album is.
Bad. Though maybe not inexplicably so. Simpson is a defiant, self-possessed country star — the rare kind who routinely violates the codes of Nashville songcraft and industry decorum but still has a big-old Grammy collecting dust in his closet. He has no interest in scoring radio hits or fulfilling anyone else’s expectations.
But throughout “Sound & Fury,” it’s difficult to figure out what Simpson expects of himself. This is a shrill, tetchy, claustrophobic rock album sodden with record-biz pouting and only the dullest shades of pre-apocalyptic ennui. And believe it or not, it’s not without precedent. Back in 2010, Shooter Jennings dropped “Black Ribbons,” a similarly mutated country album with a dystopian lyric sheet and at least a half-dozen guitar riffs that pushed the perimeters of good taste.
The thing that made “Black Ribbons” so cool was that Jennings sounded as if he were secretly having a blast. On “Sound & Fury,” Simpson only sounds aggrieved, grousing about how he wants to “make art, not friends” with a joylessness that won’t generate either. And don’t bother with the album’s accompanying anime film on Netflix. As far-out as the concept might sound, it’s basically a sequence of end-times battle scenes with the album blasting in the background.
But whatever was happening onstage Monday at the Black Cat, it was no cartoon. Simpson and his band (keys, bass, drums) sounded alive and alert, as if everyone had suddenly awoken from a bad dream. Stripped of their studio gunk, the band’s gestures felt muscular and efficient, pushing Simpson’s shadowy baritone out into the light where it belonged. On “Fastest Horse in Town,” the singer bemoaned his fame — “Oughta be watching the children play in the yard I never see” — but instead of self-pity, his voice dripped with a homesickness that you practically could reach out and catch.
Even better was “All Said and Done,” a songwriter’s lament about the dreadful hunch that every tune has already been written “two or three times.” Here, Simpson sounded as if he were valiantly questing across the void: “It’s enough to make anyone go insane when you find yourself forgetting all your own rhymes, giving up on the dreams floating around inside your brain.”
He knows the world outside of his brain can be senseless, too. This concert was a benefit for the Special Forces Foundation, a nonprofit group that assists wounded veterans and their families. So instead of rolling out his new album with a flash of late-night television appearances and an immediate arena tour, Simpson was here, in a cozy punk club, seeking a real connection, making a real change in the world.
Music created in a moment that fleeting isn’t something you can tuck away in the cloud for the rest of your life. It can survive only in your head as a memory. Halfway through the show, Simpson explained his recent hard-rock pivot like so: “It’s where the music wants to go.” There it went.