The album title ‘Starting Over’ may ring alarm bells for anybody who has followed the biggest new country music star of the last 10 years. Could this be a new sound entirely from the ‘voice’ of Country music?
Not really, but while there’s definitely no mistaking that this is a Chris Stapleton record, there’s glimpses of a move in a slightly new direction. His fourth solo album, it’s the biggest change of pace since his acclaimed debut Traveller back in 2014, but even that seems like an exaggeration.
I’m making it seem like more songs that sound like Chris Stapleton’s first three albums would be a bad thing. In fact all three, debut Traveller and the two-part From A Room series, are among the greatest country releases of recent memory. They are stacked full of emotive ballads and storming rock moments, all brought together by that undeniable outstanding voice. That’s all still here and it’s still brilliant to hear.
Tracks like ‘Whiskey Sunrise’ and ‘Arkansas’ shine brighter than they otherwise would, thanks to Stapleton’s gruff vocal performance. Everything here sounds exactly as it would were you listening to him perform these songs in a dive bar in Nashville, or in an Arena in London (if not just slightly worse, his voice is somehow even more impressive in person).
That natural live quality is something that makes Stapleton’s records stand out from the overproduced country music that is coming from Nashville these days. What you often don’t get with this kind of recording is much of a sense of light and shade – and this is where Starting Over seems to push his sound.
Take a soaring string led Bond-esque ballad like ‘Cold’, which forgoes the stripped back nature of previous vocal standouts like ‘I Was Wrong’ and ‘Whiskey and You’. Here, producer Dave Cobb and Stapleton create a wall of dramatic sound to surround his voice. While lyrically songs like this can feel a little bit of a step back from those other records I mentioned, for me I enjoyed this new sense of expansive sound, heard most clearly on the venomous ‘Watch You Burn’.
Aimed squarely at the shooter who killed and injured hundreds of people at the 2017 Route 91 country festival in Las Vegas, it’s the most striking moment on the record for obvious reasons. ‘If I could snap my fingers, if I could flip a switch/I’d make that last bullet first, you son of a bitch’ is full of seething anger, not just to this one specific act of violence, but to the series of atrocities the US has seen in recent years. It’s striking on an album of otherwise lovely country love songs, but perhaps even more so in the wider genre itself. This isn’t a ‘let’s believe in love and hope’ come together kind of song, it’s steeped in anger and pain and along with its impactful choir led finale it’s a definite standout.
This isn’t an album of massive songs like these, though. Most of the time, Starting Over sticks to solid, easy country balladry, whether that’s the lilting opening title track, the loving ode to with Chris’s wife Morgane ‘Joy of My Life’ (whose vocals aren’t featured anywhere near enough on this album as she deserves to be), or the will they/won’t they of ‘You Should Probably Leave’.
We even have ‘Maggie’s Song’, a song about losing your best friend and, you guessed it, Maggie is a dog…
These songs are certainly lovely and would have suited a place on any of Stapleton’s previous albums. Next to the more daring moments they can feel a little safe. The same goes for the pair of Guy Clark covers that appear in the second half of the album, both perfectly well performed, but unnecessary when the original song-writing is so strong elsewhere.
After two shorter 9 track LPs in the From A Room series, I’d have rather had a slightly more focused album again here. There’s moments on these 14 tracks that feel needless. That said, I can’t get enough of Chris Stapleton’s performance as a guitarist, as a songwriter and most importantly as a vocalist. He sounds incredible on every one of these songs, Chris could sing the phone book and I’d be amazed, so as a fan this is yet another set of well performed country songs. Is Starting Over his best album? Far from it, but if it signals a change of direction, even just slightly, then I’m excited to hear what comes next.
Words by Sam Atkins