Sturgill Simpson’s “The Ballad of Dood and Juanita” falls flat

Keegan Perez, Guest Writer

Sturgill Simpson released what he claims is his final solo record and, consistent with Sturgill Simpson, it’s exactly what I didn’t expect. Simpson’s concept album, “The Ballad of Dood and Juanita,” uses bluegrass and country music to recount how a tough-as-nails mountain man named Dood goes to rescue his kidnapped wife Juanita.

Simpson has played the outlaw-hero since his 2013 debut “High Top Mountain” and he slips naturally into the role here. The album does, however, deviate from the path that Simpson’s previous records blazed. For one, his swan song is only 10 tracks long and runs under half an hour. It lacks the dark humor and ostentatious absurdism that flavor Simpson’s other recent records.

Simpson proves, unsurprisingly, to be a seasoned storyteller for the concept album. Dood is “harder than the nails [that] hammered Jesus’ hands.” Dood pursues his wife and her kidnapper on Shamrock, a mule so tall-tale-scaled that his rope bridle is made of mooring line.

References to “buckskins” and the “Martin Meylin muzzle” immerse the album in verisimilitude. The album’s simplicity allows Dood’s love for Juanita to grow in the midst of his trials and searching for her. Through subtle invocations of God, Simpson fixes his songs on cosmic-scale ideas, even in a simple, self-contained story.

The album resolves to a comfortable conclusion, cementing it as a quiet and diverting epilogue to larger, bolder projects.

While Simpson enjoys his storytelling, making “Dood and Juanita” fun and engaging for the listener, the story itself is unoriginal. The plot follows simplistic characters filling archetypal roles in a plot told before by countless Spaghetti Westerns and paperback dime novels.

Simpson’s 2019 album “Sound and Fury” unfolds lyrically and musically with considerable fire and hoorah, so an underplayed grand finale like “The Ballad of Dood and Juanita” seems to lack an element of … well, grandeur. The album feels slight on structure and the stories feel like they never had time to settle. Simpson is such an elusive figure and formidable creative force, and it is disappointing that his story feels rather toothless, despite his expert telling of it.

Sturgill Simpson’s self-aware iconoclasticism has brought a new sense of humor and life to country music in recent years, and it is unfortunate that he seems to have burnt out in his final record. While “The Battle of Dood and Juanita” is too short and too simple, I am excited to see what projects Simpson pursues next. I guess it’s best to leave your audience wanting more.

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