What makes a great vocalist? The science of singing aside, the answer to this question varies from person to person. A common response, however, is that a great vocalist makes you feel something. With a deeply soulful voice colored with strength and rasp, Chris Stapleton is one of the most mesmerizing vocalists of our time. Stapleton got his start as a songwriter landing cuts on albums from Luke Bryan (“Drink a Beer”), Adele (“If It Hadn’t Been For Love”), and Thomas Rhett (“Crash and Burn”) among countless artists. After a star-making collaborative performance with Justin Timberlake at the Country Music Association Awards, Chris Stapleton — the artist — was launched into the spotlight buoyed by an instant classic single, “Tennessee Whiskey,” from an album called Traveller that would go on to hit #1 on the Billboard 200, sell over four million album units, and win Best Country Album at the Grammy Awards. Since that explosive career moment, Stapleton has amassed a number of hits and Grammys while retaining his gorgeous blend of country, rock, and soul.
For his fourth album, his first since December of 2017, Chris delivers another incredibly consistent body of work — one that hits differently with its ruminations on age, mortality, letting go, and going back to your roots. The album’s lead single and title track, released over two months before the rest of the album, is the record’s sonic and thematic crux. A somber, and at times nostalgic, number, “Starting Over” sees Chris reflecting on his post-fame life and searching for his way back to a space of serenity and comfort. In just a few short years, Chris went from a behind-the-scenes songwriter to a superstar collaborating with the likes of Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, and Alicia Keys. Over a dry acoustic guitar, Chris croons “And it don’t matter to me/Wherever we are is where I wanna be,” a sentiment that is heartfelt but hard-won. In order for Chris to make it to this space of peace, he spends a sizable chunk of the album exploring his relationship with temptation and its impact on his psyche, soul, and actions.
On “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice,” Chris dives headfirst into addressing temptation. Menacing guitar licks and his most anguished vocal performance on the entire album characterize this rollicking track. “Devil” sits at the intersection of rock and country; its country music foundation shines through with his narrative-driven songwriting, but with instrumentation anchored by thumping drums and a brash electric guitar, the song’s rock sensibilities are just as apparent. Chris repeats the phrase “the devil always made me” in the outro with increasing conviction. Nevertheless, his layered vocal performance hints that he is trying to convince himself that the devil is to blame and not himself. Similarly, “Cold,” the album’s second single which directly follows “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice,” directs most of its lyrical energy to blaming everyone but Chris himself. “Cold,” balances on the line of melodrama with its grandiose strings and howling chorus, but because Chris rarely plays into the more traditional elements of pop balladry, the song feels fresh for him. The depth of the cello plays perfectly off of the ruggedness in Chris’ voice as he wails about the demise of his relationship: “Oh, why you got to be so cold?/Why you got to go and cut me like a knife and put our love on ice?” Like on “Devil,” here, Chris is working through his fall to temptation by projecting the blame away from him instead of confronting himself. Starting Over is a nuanced back and forth between temptation and contentedness.
On songs like “Arkansas,” Chris leans even further into his rock influences with spirited guitars and drums. He sings about a reckless and freeing road trip through the Ozarks bookmarked by “blue lights in [their] rear view” and “a pit stop in Little Rock for some barbecue.” It’s really the first moment of genuine fun on this album, but it’s fun that comes by way of leaning into the temptation referenced on earlier tracks. More importantly, “Arkansas” is sandwiched between “When I’m With You” and “Joy Of My Life,” two gorgeous love songs that underscore how irreplaceable true love really is. The former uses a sweeping melody and doo-wop-influenced chord progressions to color Chris’ exploration of settling into the broken promises of life (“I’m forty years old/And it looks like the end of the rainbow ain’t no pot of gold”) and what brings him true happiness (“But when I’m with you/I feel like a dreamer”). On the latter, Chris takes the lessons learned from “Arkansas” and fully realizes that absence does make the heart grow fonder. There’s also a pair of tracks where Chris turns to his vices to process his dips into temptation and support his fight against it. “Whiskey Sunrise” evokes the passion of “Sometimes I Cry” from Chris’ debut as he leans on a staccato chorus to illustrate drowning his fears in alcohol. The following track, “Worry B Gone,” does something similar but substitutes whiskey for smoking. By the time Chris gets to “You Should Probably Leave,” the album’s sultry penultimate song, he’s figured out how to beat temptation and settle into the place of peace and security that he’s always deserved.
If half of Starting Over is fighting and triumphing in a battle of temptation, the other half sees Chris getting nostalgic and political. On “Old Friend,” Chris utilizes a Sam Hunt-esque spoken-word cadence in the verses as he sings about the sanctity of seasoned friendships. “Hillbilly Blood” is a rowdy ode to Chris’ rugged roots and “Maggie’s Song” is a gut-wrenching dedication to his family’s deceased dog of 14 years. “Maggie’s Song” features the kind of simple yet illustrative songwriting and sorrow-filled vocal performance that is guaranteed to leave you with a lump in your throat. And that is Chris Stapleton’s greatest gift: his singular ability to craft songs from the ground up that make you truly feel. Chris uses a Wurlitzer on “Maggie’s Song,” an organ-esque instrument that adds a grieving gospel feel to the song. The gospel influence is also felt on “Watch You Burn,” a vengeful track about the 2017 white supremacist-led terrorist attack on a country music festival in Las Vegas. The fiery track uses thumping instrumentation and an almost haunting choir to highlight the hook: “Oh, you’re gonna get your turn/Devil gonna watch you burn.”
Things come to a somber and familiar end with “Nashville, TN.” In a way, the closer brings Starting Over full circle to its first track. Chris sings about his tenuous relationship with a city that gave him so much and a city that he has given so much. A large part of Chris’ career and life is tied to Tennessee, but on this song, he comes to the realization that true growth is knowing when to let something go. Understanding when you have outgrown someone, or some place is the first step to starting over and building on that foundation — and that’s a lesson we can all internalize.
Key Tracks: “Cold” | “Maggie’s Song” | “Whiskey Sunrise” | “Watch You Burn” | “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice”