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Sturgill Simpson transforms country music with “metamodern” sound

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‘Sturgill Simpson with Lucette’

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport

Tickets: $16/$26/$256; Sold out

Info: thaliahallchicago.com

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Money is not always a telltale, of course, but the top ticket price of $256 to Sturgill Simpson’s show at Thalia Hall Saturday does explain a lot of things. And yes, the show is sold out.

Who is this country music singer who is commanding arena price points without heavy commercial radio play and with songs that are too morbid to fit alongside the sunnier likes of Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean?

The answer is inside the 10 songs of “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” (High Top Mountain), Simpson’s second record released earlier this year that is expected to catapult him to the top of many year-end best-of lists this month. While the title references “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,” the definitive crossover country-pop album by Ray Charles from 1962, the music is a less obvious statement. Simpson deservedly is part of the trend recently paved by Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, and a few others whose popularity is surging among audiences who feel abandoned by mainstream country since it opened its musical borders to collaborations with rappers or meathead bar rock. As country music continues to feel less and less like a genre, a new generation is showing up at its borders as a reminder of the road home.

“Metamodern” feels different because it isn’t interested in brandishing big ideas, or even definitive musical statements. Like his low and rock-steady voice, the music is orderly, the arrangements neat and minimal. There is despair and admissions of bad behavior and lyrics dipped in doom. Instead of an album that sounds like it’s reacting to something bigger than itself, these songs come off as deeply personal and less pinned to specifics like time, place, or genre.

The album opens with “Turtles All the Way Down,” which finds the singer on his lowest rung: “I’ve seen Jesus play with flames in lake of fire that I was standing in/Met the devil in Seattle, spent nine months inside the lion’s den,” he sings along to the golden strumming of an acoustic guitar as chords from a pedal steel guitar glitter in the far background. There is the sense that he is not in despair, but emerging from a shaken state, trying to make sense of how he got here. “There’s a gateway to our minds that leads somewhere far beyond this place/where reptile aliens made of light cut you open pull out all your pain,” he sings with such certitude, it makes sense.

Simpson’s voice is properly compared to outlaw male singers Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, but there are also vocal shines of Dwight Yoakam and Dale Watson. Instead of pushing the lyrics, Simpson is deadpanned, sounding at certain times like he is narrating these tales. His vocals on “Living the Dream” are intentionally (or not) blurred, which matches the hazy existentialism of the lyric: “Ain’t no point in getting out of bed when you ain’t living the dream/I could make a big ole pot of coffee when you ain’t got no cream.” On “The Promise,” one of just two covers, he slows down the 1988 synth-pop hit by Brits When in Rome so that the title vow sounds far less assured, or at least like it may be a struggle to uphold.

It is rare to hear such vulnerability in male country singers these days, especially since the only thing they often appear comfortable enough to bare are their muscles or chests. Simpson is not past songs rooted in genre — there is a genuine trucking song (“Long White Line”) and country gospel (“A Little Light”) that clocks in at less than two minutes.

That keen sense of reservation is what gives “Metamodern” its strange tension. Guitarist Laur Joamets, bassist Kevin Black and drummer Miles Miller play with understatement but burst things open when called upon. “It Ain’t All Flowers” is the album’s sole act of indulgence, with loops and other studio manipulations. But even if those weren’t there, the album would still sound otherworldly. The anxiety in these lyrics is delivered with unflinching and deep reserve. There’s a showdown at the O.K. Corral all right, but in these songs, the victim and culprit are the same.

Sturgill Simpson and “Turtles All the Way Down”: