Friday, November 20, 2020

ALBUM REVIEW: Chris Stapleton - Starting Over

Is this really the first country review I've done on here? Interesting. 

I hate to sound like an old man yelling at clouds to start this review off but whether you love or hate modern country music, it's hard to argue that the genre has strayed away from what made it super popular in the 80s and 90s. When George Strait himself says "I don't see a lot of my influence out there in country music today, out there being played on the radio," it's kind of hard to disagree. And even as someone who has spent almost all of my life listening to country radio (just up until about 4-5 years ago I exclusively listened to country radio), it does get tiring hearing the same Florida Georgia Line songs and the same Luke Bryan songs. However, when I started branching out and finding more music outside of the country genre, I eventually came back to it and found artists that I'd been missing that had been killing it but weren't getting the airplay or recognition that they deserved. Artists like Sturgill Simpson, American Aquarium, Tyler Childers, and Kacey Musgraves. I still remember watching the 2015 CMA Awards and like many people, I was surprised to see this guy I had never heard of win every award he was nominated for. So, confused, I went to Spotify and pulled up Traveller and I haven't looked back since. I was so excited that real country music was getting recognized and winning awards. The album is 14 songs, no BS, just honest songwriting and Stapleton's massive voice over some traditional country instrumentation. Songs like Fire Away and Nobody To Blame still hit me in the sweet spots when they need to. 

Stapleton in a promotional image for the new album, Starting Over. (Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone.)

Now that all eyes were on Stapleton to really deliver with his second full-length project? Did he crumble under the weight? Absolutely not, in fact, he put out two albums to really ease any doubts with From A Room, Vol. 1 and 2. Both albums are 9 songs long and once again, Stapleton came through with a lot of passionate performances, solid songwriting, and a sound that had a little more blues-rock and southern rock influence to it. Songs like Second One to Know and Midnight Train To Memphis of the first and second albums, respectively, both have these killer riffs and have great energy behind them, while songs like I Was Wrong show Chris really flexing his vocal range to the point where I'm lowkey jealous. 

Now with a fourth Stapleton album, I knew what to expect. I was ready to hear a fresh batch of Stapleton songwriting and storytelling, some more fantastic vocal performances, and more than anything, another solid country album in 2020. But when the singles for this album started dropping, I was starting to get a little worried that I might have set my expectations a bit too low. The lead single and title track kick off the album and I can't think of a better song to start the album off with. The song is led by these strummed acoustic guitar chords and the chorus have the super subtle synth chords leading the tune not in a way to where they're overbearing. They're just sort of keeping the song in tune. And while we're on the topic, the chorus is absolutely beautiful with Stapleton and his wife harmonizing while they sing:

And it don't matter to me
Wherever we are is where I wanna be
And Honey, for once in our life
Let's take our chances and roll the dice
I can be your lucky penny, you can be my four-leaf clover
Starting over

The other two singles were equally as great. The song Cold might be one of the best songs Chris has ever recorded. The song is really dramatic with these amazing spotlit vocals. It starts off sort of slow and quaint but once those huge string sections come in, it really picks up. I also love the moments on the back half of the song where the guitar solo and the strings sync up to create this really awesome harmony. I love this song so much. The final single, Arkansas was a nice serving of that southern rock influence with a lot of energy and a catchy chorus but in my opinion, I think the lyrics leave a little bit to be desired. It almost comes off like an Arkansas Tourism Ad but I won't go too hard on it, the song still slaps. So as I said, with these singles, I had my hopes set high and my fears were confirmed, I still had my expectations too low. 

The song Devil Always Made Me Think Twice is a song about how Chris was raised to be on the right path, saying his mom set a good example, his dad always gave good advice, but that the devil is always making him stray from that path. I love the guitar work on this song and it should be a fun sing-a-long when concerts get their footing back. When I'm With You a slow burner with Chris doing some self-reflection while also counting his blessings for his wife. Singing about how at 40 he thinks he's at the end of his rainbow and there's not a pot of gold anywhere near him. He also sings about his relevancy and how not a lot of people will remember what he's done when he's gone and how most nights he honestly feels like he's just fading away into obscurity. The chorus is a bright spot though as he sings about when he's with his wife, he feels like a dreamer that's having all of his dreams come true and all of his skies are blue. Expect to see a lot of dancefloors packing in to this song in the near future.  

Joy of My Life is another super sweet love song with Chris pretty bluntly in the chorus:

She takes me by the hand
I am the luckiest man alive
Did I tell you, baby
You are the joy of my life

The instrumental is pretty bare, some acoustic and electric guitars lead the way with some soft snare drum in the mix too. The song doesn't really need a crazy instrumental though. It's great how it is. Hillbilly Blood is an ode to his Kentucky upbringing, singing about white lightning crossing his lips and how a "Pike County sheriff trackin' my scent." It starts off pretty soft with some cymbal taps and some guitar chords, it sounds super familiar but I don't know where from. I also love the distorted guitar bits the come up right before the third verse. It really adds to the vibe of the song, almost like I'm driving through the woods. I really love the contrast between the lyrics and the music of the song Whiskey Sunrise. I love the guitar solo on this song and the blues-rock vibes are strong as hell, but like I said, the lyrics are sad as hell. Chris sings in the chorus:

So I drink all night
But the hurtin' won't stop
And every shot I take just turns into teardrops
And I lay down to sleep
And I pray I don't open my eyes
To a whiskey sunrise

When I first heard the song Worry B Gone I couldn't shake the 50s/60s rock groove it had, part of why I love it so much. The song is a Guy Clark cover and it feels almost more appropriate today than it did when it was released almost 15 years ago with lyrics about how everywhere he looks, there's trouble and how he can't listen to the radio or watch TV because it'll just bring him down even more. I love the hook though, "gimme just one more puff of that worry B gone." The next song, Old Friends, is another Guy Clark cover. The instrumental almost reminds me of the title track of Mac Miller's posthumous album, Circles. His performance of the song is kind of soft, lowkey, but this isn't a song where he needs to be belting out. In fact, I think the spoken word delivery during the verses works out super well. 

The album ends on a super strong note with the songs You Should Probably Leave and Nashville, TN. The former is a song that I hope gets pushed to radio soon because it's great single material. It's another song that will probably pack in the dance floors in the future even though the song is about Chris trying to get rid of this girl that he just can't resist. Constantly telling her, "yeah, you're cool, but you should probably leave to benefit both of us," even though the songs end with the two of them waking up in bed next to each other. The latter is another reflection of Stapleton's career but this time focusing on his time in the city. Pretty much thanking the city for all it's done for him, teaching him how to write songs and blooming his career, but he's done with it. There's a line I really like where he says "Maybe years from now you'll be the one I think about / But I just can't imagine that 'cause I'm not one for looking back."

Now there are two songs that I've been waiting to talk about because I felt that they deserved their own spotlight. I didn't want to lump them in with the rest of the songs because they need this recognition as they're not only my favorite songs on the album but the best songs too. The first is Maggie's Song which hits me like a bag of bricks every time I hear it. I'm getting emotional just thinking of it. The song is about Chris and his wife finding a "fuzzy black pup" in a shopping cart on the side of the road and taking her home. Stapleton sings about Maggie growing up with the kids, how she loves chasing squirrels, and how she could take off like a bullet. But the last verse is just heart wrenching if you've ever lost a family pet with Stapleton singing about how on the day she passed she woke up and couldn't use her legs so he laid down by her side and she puts her head in his hand and it's just so sad to listen to. His storytelling on the song is A1 and I hate that it starts and ends so quickly because as soon as I get invested in it, she passes away. The last song I need to talk about is hands down the best song of the album to me, Watch You Burn. 

The song is Stapleton singing about the Route 91 Harvest Festival Shooting in a way that I don't think anyone else has sung about it yet. (I could be mistaken though, let me know if I am.) The song isn't Stapleton trying to relate to the audience or the artists on stage, instead, he quite literally calls the shooter a b*tch. Starting off the song by saying "Only a coward would pick up a gun and shoot up a crowd just to have fun." The chorus is pretty much Stapleton telling to the shooter to rot in hell. There's a line in the second verse that I absolutely love where Stapleton sings:

If I could snap my fingers, if I could flip a switch
I'd make that last bullet first, you son of a b*tch

The production on the song and instrumental is angry, pissed off, super fiery. I absolutely adore the call and response with the choir in the last chorus before they all harmonize in unison for the outro. They just hit higher and higher notes and the higher the notes go, the higher I float above the clouds. I wish it didn't end as abruptly but the song we got was incredible.

Stapleton performing at the 2020 CMA Awards. 

I've been honestly surprised at how many great country albums we've gotten this year. This album is just another one to add to the list. The production is phenomenal, Stapleton's voice and his writing once again steal the show, even though I feel like there are some points where I feel like he could've tried harder (namely Arkansas) but besides that, I don't really have any more gripes. I don't care if you like country music or not, give this album a try.

I would rate
Starting Over
by Chris Stapleton


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