Despite its name, ‘Starting Over’ is another Chris Stapleton album, for better and worse.
Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but you get the feeling that Chris Stapleton never really craved stardom.
That, of course, leads into the obvious starting point for pretty much any Stapleton discussion – how, just five years ago, he went from being an underground talent to an overnight sensation, thanks to a collaborative performance with Justin Timberlake and subsequent award victories at the 49th Annual Country Music Association Awards, where the meteoric impact is still noticeable today.
At leas, depending on how you judge “impact.” As far as the event and its immediate aftermath are concerned, one could make a solid case that Stapleton’s huge CMA wins from that historic night sparked a real change for country music fans that didn’t know a huge talent pool existed beyond an FM radio dial. As far as making a case for the longevity of the album art form, Traveller is still a consistent seller, and as far as Stapleton’s success goes now, that impact is huge.
There’s a “but” to all of that, though, that reflects the weird duality of Stapleton’s solo run thus far. As far as radio is concerned, Stapleton only has one No. 1 hit to his name – two years after the fact, for what it’s worth – and aside from maybe sporting some look-alikes in, say, Luke Combs (even if the sound isn’t quite an exact match), the general sound of your average radio hit is still mostly generic, watered-down nothingness that lacks any flair or punch to it whatsoever. Even going back to my previous point, while I would argue Stapleton’s wins opened the doors for certain independent acts, this was also a year where several of them attained No. 1 records on their own terms, long before the CMA event even happened.
And then there’s the question of whether or not Stapleton even belongs in that conversation anyway. Independent in spirit, for sure, but this is a man who got his start within the industry writing songs for artists like Luke Bryan and Tim McGraw, and blew up from an industry event. He started his performing career fronting bluegrass and southern-rock outfits, but Traveller was a solo debut inspired by Sturgill Simpson and released on major label Mercury Nashville. Ironically enough, it almost makes too much sense that he admitted in a recent interview how he never promoted himself that well as a songwriter – he was a unique talent that wanted to stick to the shadows and make music on his own terms. And that’s the beautifully objective statement one can make about Stapleton’s run thus far – he doesn’t need country radio now.
But I can’t help but think that, in the wake of that aforementioned CMA boost, his team should have tried capitalizing on that momentum much better than they actually did. Despite what I just said, country radio is still the king when it comes to breaking and sustaining “talent,” even if it pains me to say that about that dying institution. Again, too, it’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room when it comes to just how Stapleton broke through, even without country radio. The natural singing talent is what catapulted that momentum, but it didn’t necessarily give him the platform needed to launch it.
I guess what I’m saying is that, while “Tennessee Whiskey” was the hit, “Nobody to Blame” was the single afterwards, followed by “Parachute,” and if that’s not a better representation of the dichotomy that exists between sales and outdated callout research and how that, ultimately, measures radio success, I’m not sure what is. And that’s a note on Mercury Nashville, too, and how they haven’t so much mismanaged Stapleton as much as have no clue how to handle his popularity. I mean, acts breaking through without radio happens all the time outside of country music, but when we’re dealing with an industry that almost seems self-isolated at points, they’ve made some baffling decisions so far – from splitting a bare-bones From A Room compilation into two separate projects, to releasing, of all songs from either of those two albums, “Either Way” as the lead single, to releasing the second of those two albums at the end of 2017 and further squandering any potential momentum in a dead period for new music. Again, Stapleton doesn’t need country radio to prove his success, but I can’t help but wonder how much more he’d benefit from some basic proper marketing and better single choices.
Then again, I’d also say it’s discussions like that and ones of his place as some country music savior that prompted this needed artistic rebound for him, leading up to his long-awaited follow-up effort. Heck, between collaborations with P!nk, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran in recent years, he’s been just as active elsewhere as he has been in the country genre. Even he himself has admitted that the overwhelming success has been almost too much to handle. So for as much as “starting over” is both an on-the-nose album title for current times and an artistic rebirth, it’s also been a long time coming and features a murderers’ row of talent, from Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to Paul Franklin, Dave Cobb on production once again, and finally Chris and wife Morgane Stapleton themselves. So enough rambling – is Starting Over that needed shot of rejuvenation?
For as much heavy lifting as the album title does in its implication of new direction and themes, Starting Over is very much a Chris Stapleton project, for better and worse. On one hand, it’s an album that trades between soft acoustic cuts and swaggering southern-rock, with a few covers thrown in for good measure … like all of his projects thus far. One could make the argument that this isn’t so much a rebirth as it is a proper sophomore effort that’s been way too long in coming.
I’ll admit that there’s where I stood with the project upon my first few listens. But not only would I call this a more well-rounded effort than Traveller and a fuller experience than either From a Room project, I’d also say it’s Stapleton’s best-produced project to date, even if I can’t deny that some of this does feel derivative, if not for basic country music themes and ideas then for Stapleton in general. With that said, I am left a bit cold on it as a whole, mostly because its overlong and never picks up the needed momentum to carry it through, even if there are some legitimately great cuts here. For as much as it does better in certain areas, I’d likely call this his weakest effort yet. Still good, but not quite great.
But what I think I appreciate most about this project, compared to other Stapleton albums, is the subtle changes in production and approach, and where I think the album stands out the most. Sure, the title track is playing to very comfortable, midtempo, acoustic territory, but there’s a much more noticeable warmth to the rollicking, jangly groove, complete with equally well-mixed bass and low-end organ for added comfort. I’ll even admit I underrated how much subtlety he’s picked up as a performer since Traveller when I initially reviewed the single. On the flip side, Dave Cobb has also gotten much better at producing southern-rock over the years to match the heft of Stapleton’s growl, meaning songs like “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice” and “Whiskey Sunrise” can thrive off stomping blues-driven grooves and don’t need much else to shine. And that’s before mentioning the brighter keys punctuating the old-school rock ‘n’ roll groove of “Arkansas” that connects phenomenally well, too.
Still, the album aims higher when it reaches for deeper complexities in the compositions, and though certain differences are subtle, they can make a huge difference. “Hillbilly Blood” is aiming for the same biting stomp as those aforementioned tracks, but there’s something noticeably darker and sinister about that thick, coarse groove that continuously picks up more momentum as it progresses, all to bolster the content that tilts into southern-Gothic territory and shows Stapleton aiming higher – more on that later, though. Even for as simple and familiar as “When I’m With You” is with the noticeable ‘70s-inspired pickups, firmer bass and echoing reverb, it’s a moment that feels weathered without being outright brittle to support the content, and I can say the same for the wistful interplay between the acoustics and pedal steel on “Nashville, TN.”
But those are moments that strengthen a bedrock sound that’s always had the potential to be something more for Stapleton. Flip it over to “Cold,” and while the clean, old-school orchestral swell is nice, it’s an odd fit for a song aiming for a tone more ragged in the content itself. Of course, I could make the same note for the plaintive moments, albeit to a lesser extent for sounding good, if inconsistent. I love that mellow, ‘80s-inspired groove to “You Should Probably Leave,” but the album is mostly stuck between acoustic ballads and fast-paced rockers, and the album never seems to settle on a consistent flow or energy. And while this is going to be a tough note to address when we get to the content, “Watch You Burn” is probably the last track here that should have a gratuitous instrumental outro tacked on to the end of it, especially when certain endings to other tracks – even the highlights – can feel oddly abrupt at points.
But on that note, if there’s one area holding this album back for me, it’s the lyrics and themes. I don’t necessarily need some overarching theme to thread an album together, but there’s something noticeably more predictable about this album at points, compared to past Stapleton efforts. For as much as music journalists have tried to get him to shun the outlaw image in interviews – because God forbid an artist actually enjoys making country music – it’s right there on tracks like “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice” and “Whiskey Sunrise.” And look, I at least like the former track for its energy, but if I’m looking for the deeper details that shade some of Stapleton’s best songs, they don’t really fluctuate as much here, sadly.
Maybe it’s the choice of covers, where, of the two Guy Clark covers, one of them is “Worry B Gone,” which is a thuddingly obvious attempt at creating a fun gimmick in the vein of “Them Stems” and is easily one of the most baffling choices here. And even if there’s no underlying arc here, the sequencing doesn’t always do this album any favors. You have the hard-rocking, partying/touring song in “Arkansas” sandwiched in between “When I’m With You,” about contemplating age and mortality and the toll success has taken on him, and a similar take in the John Fogerty cover of “Joy Of My Life,” which just makes it feel all the more unnecessary here.
And again, you don’t always need the deeper details when you have a talent like Stapleton at the front of the microphone, but like with the compositions, the tracks that stand out do matter. “Hillbilly Blood” is inspired by Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” and takes it a step further with the aftermath and day-to-day life of that sort of sordid character, and there’s an unstable paranoia evident in the subtext that’s as dark as anything Stapleton has ever written. And before he can get to “starting over,” as the title implies, he ends the album with “Nashville, TN,” a songwriter’s anthem in the vein of “16th Avenue,” “Leaving Nashville” or “This Town Is Killing Me,” only told from the songwriter who managed to break free of the vicious cycle. It’s not defeat so much as it is a realignment of personal values and questioning how much life you have left in you when you’re giving a piece of yourself to everyone, and there’s a fantastic arc underneath that I wish was explored more here.
Instead, we get tracks like “Cold” and “Whiskey Sunrise” that feel oversold and derivative as heartbreak and drinking-to-forget tracks, respectively, and the one track that’s going to be hardest to discuss – “Watch You Burn.” And look, I get that it’s solely a reactionary track to the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting from 2017, but the problem may just come in that intention, rather than taking time to reflect on a deeper level. It’s angry and certainly Stapleton’s most passionate performance yet, but the entire focus is on condemning Stephen Paddock to a fiery Hell and … look, anyone evil enough to commit that sort of atrocity likely doesn’t care what demon you compare them to – they’re expecting and hoping for that. I think of Eric Church’s “Why Not Me” and “Through My Ray-Bans” as tracks that aim for something more human, relatable and uncomfortable to actually put into words, focusing on the horrible event, but also on the next steps and needed courses of action.
But as for where it puts Starting Over as a whole, for as many small, needed improvements as both Stapleton and Cobb have made, it still feels like an inconsistent effort, where the basic talent will shine above the actual quality. With that said, there are some legitimately great cuts here, with “Hillbilly Blood” and “Nashville, TN” being among Stapleton’s best yet. But it scans mostly as an odd transitional record that fosters a good foundation and looks to build off of it later on, so while it’s good to have him back, I’m looking forward more to what’s next after he finds that needed closure.
- Favorite tracks: “Nashville, TN,” “Hillbilly Blood,” “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice,” “You Should Probably Leave,” “When I’m With You”
- Least favorite track: “Whiskey Sunrise”