Sturgill Simpson has been leading the contemporary country music scene since his 2013 debut album High Top Mountain. He’s known for pushing the boundaries of country through his incorporation of other genres and his unconventional lyrical content, but his 2019 album Sound and Fury is by far his most unique, but in ways you might not expect.
Sound and Fury is bursting with blues, hard rock, and psychedelic rock, but during the recording process Simpson came to the conclusion that his work wasn’t as eclectic as he wanted. In an interview with Zane Lowe, Simpson explained “Man, this isn’t weird enough. I should probably go to Japan and, like, get the five most legendary animation directors in history together…and we’ll just animate the whole…album”. Thus, “Sturgill Simpson Presents Sound and Fury” was born.
“Sturgill Simpson Presents Sound and Fury” is a 41-minute long visual album on Netflix. It’s a nonlinear dystopian anime that features a multitude of art styles. The visuals range from a live action skateboarding sequence, to a gory watercolor battle, to a pop art dance party. I won’t spoil every stylistic turn it takes, in part because I could devote hours to breaking down each scene. The film takes inspiration from Mad Max, Heavy Metal, and Cowboy Bebop, but these alone can’t even begin to describe the versatility the film exhibits.
The description on Netflix summarizes the plot as “a mysterious driver heads deep into a post-apocalyptic hellscape toward a ferocious showdown with two monstrous opponents”. The film leaves the rest of the story largely up to the interpretation of the viewer. The lack of dialogue and the time skips from scene to scene require a keen eye for detail and metaphor.
The short film is a display of anime and country music at their most extravagant. Pounding bass, powerful guitar riffs, and outlaw-country inspired vocals tell Simpson’s story of a music scene and a country in crisis. This is perfectly accompanied by the colorful, bombastic, and sometimes downright disturbing imagery. Writer and director Junpei Mizusaki’s tale of a savage cyberpunk samurai might not be the first image that pops into your head when you think of country music, but the combination kept my attention from the very first note all the way through the credits.
The music and visual storytelling work together seamlessly. Not only does the music line up with the animation at key moments — for example, a drum beat lining up with the motions of a blacksmith — but there is a thematic connection as well, in the form of political commentary. Simpson is known for speaking out against former US president Donald Trump, corporations, homophobia, and racism, and is actively pro-gun control. It’s important to note that the film is grotesque at points, but not without a purpose. While it may seem contradictory for a man so pro-gun control to green-light such an aggressively violent film, the entire point is to be disgusted at the violence.
Simpson and Mizusaki want you to get mad. “Sturgill Simpson Presents Sound and Fury” is a depiction of the revenge we all want to see against the corporate greed that takes precedence over the greater good. The flashback scene of the main character’s origin story serves as the anti-authoritarian motivation of her rampage, and contributes to her characterization as an anti-hero. There are multiple morally gray characters throughout the film, but the true evil is clear, as represented by the two villains she faces in her flashback and in the final battle.
The visual album ends with two quotes. One is from Japanese philosopher Miyamoto Musashi: “Get beyond love and grief and exist for the good of man”. The other states “Dedicated to the lost souls and victims of senseless violence”. At first glance this seems contradictory to the revenge plot, but upon further examination the senseless violence is not that of the main character, but of her wealthy foes. She isn’t purely good, because she is a perpetrator of violence, but she is a Robin Hood-like character using that violence in a way that she considers a benefit to society.
“Sturgill Simpson Presents Sound and Fury” is a shocking cultural mashup, and it works far better than I ever expected it to. The album on its own is interesting, but the addition of the visual aspect makes it clear that Simpson and his collaborators aren’t merely providing entertainment — they’re issuing a warning to the 1%. “Sturgill Simpson Presents Sound and Fury” is an explosive manifestation of the defiant attitude that dares to change country music forever, and I already can’t wait to watch it again.