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Chris Stapleton – Starting Over

Discussion in 'Article Discussion' started by Melody Bot, Nov 13, 2020.

  1. Melody Bot

    Your friendly little forum bot. Staff Member

    This article has been imported from chorus.fm for discussion. All of the forum rules still apply.

    Chris Stapleton, it seems, has little interest in being famous. Five years on from the CMA Awards team-up with Justin Timberlake that made Stapleton a superstar, he’s yet to cash in on his A-list status in any of the significant way, barring perhaps playing concerts in bigger rooms. His follow-up to 2015’s Traveller could have been gargantuan. He easily could have called in another favor from Timberlake for a guest feature, and you have to assume that other famous pop stars, country stars, songwriters, and producers were lining up to work with him. Yet, rather than deliver a bid for crossover success, Stapleton dropped a pair of albums that were, essentially, b-side collections. From A Room: Vol. 1 and From A Room: Vol. 2, released roughly six months apart in 2017, were made up of covers and songs that Stapleton had written during his long career as a writer for a Nashville publishing agency. The songs didn’t grapple with Stapleton’s newfound fame, nor did they really push any boundaries in terms of sonics or structure. Instead, both records played like low-stakes almost-demo collections, with spartan production, no notable features, and no-frills production from Dave Cobb, the same guy who’d sat behind the boards for Traveller.

    Starting Over, Stapleton’s fourth full-length LP, tweaks the playbook a bit but doesn’t throw it away. Cobb is still in the producer’s chair, even though Stapleton probably could have gotten just about any producer in the pop world—a Greg Kurstin, perhaps, or a Jack Antonoff—to take his call and help him craft a career leap forward. And the songs still sound like Chris Stapleton songs, with no massive departures to reconfigure what we might expect from one of modern country music’s greatest voices in the future. The changes that do happen are subtler, though they are appreciated. One important difference this time around is that, from what I can tell at least, it appears Stapleton has been writing. A core letdown of the From A Room albums—both of which I enjoy greatly, for the record—was just how out of time they felt. When an artist goes through a meteoric rise like the one Stapleton experienced in 2015, you want to hear how that journey affects them. The A Room albums, by simple virtue of being made up almost entirely of old songs, didn’t give that window into Stapleton’s soul that great songwriting can often provide. With Starting Over, these songs feel more present and prescient, which in turn makes the album sound immediately more vital than either of its predecessors did.

    There are also some new collaborators on the board this time around, most notably Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, of Tom Petty’s beloved Heartbreakers. Having those two around is a perfect fit for Stapleton, who I’ve increasingly thought of over the past few years as this generation’s Petty. Just like Petty always did, Stapleton has this mystifying power to write simple songs that feel like they’ve always been here, and that worm their way deeper into your soul with every listen. With Campbell, Stapleton writes two of Starting Over’s best songs: “Arkansas,” a visceral blast of bar-band rock ‘n’ roll; and “Watch You Burn,” a scathing evisceration of the gunman behind the massacre at Las Vegas’s Route 91 Harvest country music festival in 2017. The former is an example of the kind of kinetic live-show-ready country rock that Stapleton always elevates with his big, cavernous voice. The latter, which builds into an intense explosion of guitar and gospel choir howls, is one of the moments on the record that feels like genuinely new territory for Stapleton. Even when he’s trawling older ground, though, Stapleton sounds thoroughly in his wheelhouse here. That’s certainly the case with the three carefully-chosen cover songs (lovely takes on John Fogerty’s “Joy of My Life” and Guy Clark’s “Worry B Gone” and “Old Friends”), or on originals that sound like vintage vinyl (soulful beauties like “When I’m with You” or “You Should Probably Leave”). And then there’s the title track, a bright acoustic strummer that sounds like a direct nod to Petty’s own “Wildflowers.”

    In interviews, Stapleton has said he began the journey toward Starting Over in 2018, with a trip down to an unfamiliar Muscle Shoals studio. The magic wasn’t happening, so he and his band tabled the record and headed back to their busy touring schedule. That false start eventually led Stapleton back to RCA Studio A (the “A Room” referenced in the last albums’ titles), but also gave him the time to think more critically and deliberately about what he wanted to accomplish with album number four. The resulting disc dispenses with some of the more demo-sounding aspects of the From A Room albums, opting instead for something more along the lines of the widescreen, fully-realized Traveller sound. Dave Cobb is a wonderful producer, with one of the best track records in modern music, but if there’s one drawback to artists working with him, it’s that he tends to work fast and doesn’t always send musicians back in for a second take or an overdub when doing so might be advisable. But just as Jason Isbell’s Reunions from earlier this year sounded a little bolder and richer than its predecessors, Starting Over sparkles with virtuosity and musical depth that wasn’t always there on the previous albums. Splendid guitarwork and gorgeous tones litter this album from start to finish, particularly the Clapton-esque licks of “You Should Probably Leave” and the punchy, dirty growls of the guitar on “Watch You Burn.” On “Cold,” we get the addition of strings—a Stapleton first—plus some B3 organ from Mr. Tench, for an agonized love-gone-wrong torch song. It sounds like Stapleton’s audition for the next Bond theme, and it’s legitimately thrilling. And of course, Stapleton’s voice is as impressive as ever, sounding just as good on the tender, melodic love songs as it does on the crunchy southern rock songs.

    “Well the road rolls out like a welcome mat/To a better place than the one we’re at,” Stapleton sings on “Starting Over,” one of several lyrics on the album that feel particularly apt for the bitter challenges 2020 has brought. (Three songs later, on “When I’m with You,” it’s “Got a good job/And I’m thankful to be working when so many good people are not” that rings like a prophetic gut punch.) The band had Starting Over in the can in February, before COVID-19 broke the world, but as often happens with great music, the album somehow feels even more resonant for this moment than the one in which it was recorded. The album’s emotional wallops just hit harder now, whether it’s “Maggie’s Song,” a musical tip of the hat to The Band’s “The Weight” whose lyrics tell the story of Stapleton’s late family dog; or “Nashville, TN,” a bittersweet farewell to the city that Stapleton had to leave to get away from the limelight. But it’s the title track that gives the album it’s beating heart, just as “Wildflowers” was the anchor to Petty’s masterpiece:

    This might not be an easy time
    There's rivers to cross and hills to climb
    Some days we might fall apart
    And some nights might feel cold and dark
    When nobody wins afraid of losing
    And the hard roads are the ones worth choosing
    Someday we'll look back and smile
    And know it was worth every mile

    Words like these speak to Stapleton’s talent as a songwriter: enough writerly craft for his work to feel graceful and full of beauty, but vague enough to leave room for listeners’ experiences. Right now, it’s hard to listen to the song and not hear it as a prayer for resilience in the midst of a pandemic that seems far from over. Someday, maybe we’ll be able to hear Stapleton sing it from the stage of an arena, and to feel the words as something celebratory instead of something heavy and bittersweet. That possibility seems impossibly far off, as I write these words. But then again, as Stapleton sings, “The hard roads are the ones worth choosing.” We’ve got a hard road ahead, but the good news is that Starting Over is the perfect soundtrack for the trip.

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  2. estacey99

    Oh yeah, oh yeah, everything is terrible.

    really good album; Maggie's Song has real The Weight vibes to it

    EDIT: just noticed you made the same comparison in the review, oops!!
     
    Brent and Craig Manning like this.
  3. Joel Gustafson

    A glass can only spill what it contains Supporter

    Great album, although I was not ready for Maggie's Song to break me the way it did
     
    Craig Manning likes this.
  4. Craig Manning

    @FurtherFromSky Moderator

    Yes! That had to be intentional, right?
     
  5. rbf737

    Regular

    Ha five seconds into it and yes definitely.
     
    Craig Manning likes this.
  6. thenewedition

    Can You Stand the Rain?

    Another wonderful album from a wonderful artist. Aside from Stapleton's unmatched voice, the guitarwork steals the show.

    That being said, I don't quite see the grace and beauty in those verse lyrics from "Starting Over." They're far too cliche to convey any elegant profundity. Crossing the river, climbing the hill, choosing the hard road, looking back and smiling... it's a fine message, but that wouldn't survive an initial revision in a high school creative writing class. You mentioned Isbell's Reunions in your review; his imagery seems far more original and evocative.

    Love your reviews, Craig. Just my .02 cents.
     
    Craig Manning likes this.
  7. estacey99

    Oh yeah, oh yeah, everything is terrible.

    if it isn't it sure is one hell of a coincidence
     
    Craig Manning likes this.
  8. Craig Manning

    @FurtherFromSky Moderator

    See, for me it's the Petty thing again. Petty had this great knack for making cliche or borderline-cliche lyrics sound fresh and heartfelt. Stapleton, for me, has the same strength. I think of something like "Learning to Fly," which has a similar message to "Starting Over." I think the uncharitable read on those lyrics would also find them to be pretty cliche, but something about the simplicity of them has always struck me as very affecting, and yes, elegant. I do agree that Isbell is head and shoulders above Stapleton as a lyricist, but they're also doing pretty different things as songwriters, IMO. Isbell is a storyteller at heart, more of a Springsteen. Stapleton is more about writing very broad, easily relatable songs that sound great on the radio and stick in your head, just like Petty was.
     
    skoopy likes this.
  9. thenewedition Nov 14, 2020
    (Last edited: Nov 14, 2020)
    thenewedition

    Can You Stand the Rain?

    "Uncharitable" seems like a fair enough way to describe my reading of it. The Petty comparison is apt -- the simplicity of his lyrics was always part of his genius and, likely, broad appeal. Still, even a song like "Learning to Fly" has melting rocks and burning seas, and crucially, it doesn't pile the cliches on top of one another. But you're totally right -- Stapleton writes broad and relatable songs, and he does it exceedingly well. Something like "Maggie's Song" transcends the cliches, even if the chorus reminds me of the Lil Sebastian song from Parks and Rec. I suppose that's not such a bad thing -- that Mouse Rat song is a killer.
     
    Joel Gustafson and Craig Manning like this.
  10. Craig Manning

    @FurtherFromSky Moderator

    Ha, I laughed out loud at the Lil Sebastian comparison. You’re not wrong!
     
  11. Excellent write-up. I said in the thread and I’ll say it hear. I feel like this is and will be his Continuum.
     
    Craig Manning likes this.
  12. Craig Manning

    @FurtherFromSky Moderator

    Thanks!

    I don’t think it’s quite the leap forward Continuum was for Mayer, nor do I think it’s on that level as an album, but there are definitely some sonic similarities.
     
    AlwaysEvolving21 likes this.
  13. DooDooBird

    Trusted

    Maggie’s Song really fucks me up.
     
    Craig Manning and Brent like this.