Album Review — Chris Stapleton’s ‘Starting Over’

Chris Stapleton isn’t just a country artist. He’s a rock, soul, pop and blues artist too. It’s why he crosses over betweens several groups of fans and he gives off what feels like universal appeal. Incorporating multiple influences of genres into his music is what he’s always done and always will do. Expecting anything less is quite frankly naive. Of course he’s marketed as a country artist because it’s what sells easiest to listeners and for people who like to have boxes for their music (plus artists seemingly aren’t allowed to be marketed beyond one genre, but that’s another can of worms). But as for me, I enjoy variety and I hate boxes. Starting Over is an album that refuses to stay in one box and damn do I enjoy this record because of this.

The jangling “Starting Over” is an appropriate opener. It feels like the beginning of a trip or journey thanks to it’s uplifting nature conveyed by it’s acoustic-driven sound and of course the lyrical content centering around hitting the reset button. It’s Stapleton at his core and that’s a songwriter with a guitar. He sets the base with this song and spends the rest of the album building on this with the different layers of his style. “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice” is his twangy, “outlaw” country side. He shows off his bluesy, rawer side vocally that he demonstrated a lot in From A Room: Volume 1. And I love this because it’s so powerful and gives the song an enjoyable sing-a-long quality. Yes, the lyrics aren’t evolutionary. But they don’t need to be when Stapleton’s voice is the centerpiece of the song. The whole point is giving this raw and bluesy passion a platform.

“Cold” instantly became one of my favorites from Stapleton. Just like “Either Way,” this song blows me away with it’s powerful vocals. The piano and strings-driven, orchestral sound gives it an entertaining dramatic feel. It feels like something out of the climax of a movie. There’s a sense of urgency and gravitas behind each sound in this song, constantly building until the crescendo in the bridge as the guitars crash and Stapleton explodes vocally. Again, Stapleton doesn’t need lyrics to tell a compelling story with this song. He just uses his effortless vocals and grand instrumentation to create great emotion in the listener.

Stapleton though switches more into storytelling mode with “When I’m With You.” It’s set very much in the vein of “Tennessee Whiskey”: it’s slowed down, bluesy and reiterating an appreciation for your significant other. It goes beyond this slightly though, as it’s within the context of Stapleton turning 40 and being introspective of not only his relationship with his wife Morganne, but where he’s at in his life and reflecting on lessons learned so far. It’s not just an “I love my wife” song in the vein of the boyfriend country songs on radio. Stapleton also admits that life hasn’t been the “pot of gold” he imagined it to be either and isn’t exactly where he expected to be. It’s grounded in reality and doesn’t have a singular focus, which makes it more resonating.

“Arkansas” is a fun rocker. It’s a song where you crank the volume all the way up and sing along with like his cuts with The Jompson Brothers. Because an album with just introspective ballads would be boring and as I said at the start, Stapleton is many genres, including rock. Even though I must admit that a song about having fun in Arkansas is a bit funny because it’s not exactly Las Vegas in the minds of many. Stapleton then covers John Fogerty’s “Joy of My Life” and it’s another enjoyable love ballad from him. He knocks these out in his sleep. But it’s one of a couple songs that aren’t essential for this album. He already has a couple other ballads that are better on not just this album, but in other albums too.

One of the more seemingly underrated tracks on this album is “Hillbilly Blood.” Stapleton says this song takes inspiration from Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” and you can definitely hear the influence in both the production and lyrics. It’s a thrilling story of an outlaw on the run for illegal activity (likely weed or moonshine, but it’s never specified). While I can understand wanting some more details, I believe the vagueness of the story gives it an appealing shroud of mystery similar to Eric Church’s “Knives of New Orleans.” Stapleton gets sentimental on “Maggie’s Song,” an ode to his dog that passed away that tells a synopsis of her life and the impact she had on him and his family. Normally this type of song elicits an eye-roll from me. It’s critic bait. It’s usually saccharine and it brings out my crankiness towards the unhealthy obsessiveness of today’s pet ownership culture. But damn does it win me over in a big way, in large part thanks to the intricate descriptiveness and reflection in the lyrics. It gets personal and that makes it so much more connectable than other songs in this vein. It has heart.

Just like “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice,” Stapleton’s voice is the centerpiece on “Whiskey Sunrise.” The theme and lyrics are nothing special, but that’s not the point. This is an exercise in showcasing his incredible vocals. For some this has become a boring and predictable aspect of Stapleton, but I’m still impressed by his voice and this song shows this in spades. Also the build up of the drums in the background of the hook gives the song a satisfying swell and excitement. “Worry B Gone” and “Old Friends” are two unlikely covers of the legendary Guy Clark. On the former, it’s easy to dismiss it on the surface level as Stapleton’s standard weed song on an album. But reading into it more, you could interpret it as a subtle protest of the times and not fitting the mold of what others expect of him, which makes it a more interesting inclusion on the album. Maybe I’m just finding what I want to find. It’s all subjective of course. The latter is unfortunately my least favorite track of the album. It’s not bad, it just doesn’t fit Stapleton in my mind and the original from Clark feels like it should be left as is. This feels like the same situation of when Stapleton covered “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning.”

“Watch You Burn” was probably my most anticipated song on the album. It was sampled in the album teaser and it caught my eye because it sounds unlike any other Stapleton song to this point. It’s a viscerally angry response to the shooter at the 2017 country festival in Vegas. It rightfully rips the shooter a new ass and condemns him to hell for his monstrous actions. And quite frankly there shouldn’t be any other response to such an event. Shooters don’t deserve to be humanized in any way and their name should be forgotten. And you can’t solve the problems of the world in a song either (and certainly not through anger). But you can give voice to an emotion. This song gives voice to the angered and those wronged from the shooting.

I instantly enjoy “You Should Probably Leave” due it’s smooth and breezy R&B sound. The lyrics are arguably more enjoyable, as a potential romance is constantly teased and built up before it finally happens. There’s an internal resistance that doesn’t match the actions that builds up the sexual tension for both sides in the song, creating an intriguing doubt. This results in a clever twist at the end, where doubt is only doubled after indulging in passion. And the song rightfully doesn’t come to a conclusion because it’s the tantalizing doubt and flirting with danger that’s the whole point of it all. It’s enjoyable to be left wanting more, a la a cliffhanger in a movie.

The album concludes with “Nashville, TN” and it’s a breakup song between Stapleton and the city. He says he wrote the song in the wake of his rise to superstardom, something he’s admittedly not comfortable with. I think this is his quiet rebuke to those who expected him to rise to the occasion and be this superstar they envisioned him to be. So more than anything this feels like him divorcing himself from the expectations of the machine: producing radio hits, promoting himself and fitting the mold of a typical country star. Because as this album proves throughout, playing by the rules and meeting expectations is not something Stapleton is really interested in. Nor was it how he came to be the star he is today. Moving out of Nashville is symbolic of all of this.

Starting Over is what it says it is: it’s Chris Stapleton hitting a reset button on expectations. It’s him indulging in all of his influences and putting them all on display. It’s a reminder of who he is as an artist, even though this may not sound much different than what he’s released before. But again the expectations have to be kept in check because an artist’s image is more important than many listeners and reviewers realize. I think Stapleton realized he needed to reiterate who he sees himself as with this album. It’s him quietly and not so quietly voicing his displeasure at the world around him too. But really Stapleton does what he’s always focused on doing with his music on this album: making good music with no expectations. And that’s the best kind of music.

Grade: 9/10