Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Starting Over, the new album from Chris Stapleton.
Since he exploded into the charts and minds of country listeners after a viral CMAs performance in 2015 — which vaulted his album, Traveller, to the top of Billboard Country Charts for years, selling 4 million copies — Chris Stapleton has done his best to keep things as contained and understated as possible. Despite becoming — more or less — the biggest country star of the 2010s, the kind who every country artist had to reckon with, he’s ducked every opportunity to make himself into the Main Event. When he followed up Traveller, he did so with two albums called Live From A Room, which had songs about smoking stems, Pops Staples and Willie Nelson covers, and basically ducked any temptation for anyone to say, “He’s trying to top Traveller.” He instead just opted out of the narrative that saw him as country’s “Savior,” some guy forcing Florida Georgia Line to make songs about dirt instead of Fireball.
That trend continues with his first new LP in three years, Starting Over, an album with a cover that screams: “This is just another record, listen and carry it with you, and move on.” But that push to keep things understated hides the maximal quality of Starting Over, since the record is Stapleton’s first “proper” LP of all new songs — minus two Guy Clark covers and one John Fogerty — it’s a big, blown out, towering LP that makes room for songs about departed dogs, the Las Vegas Route 91 shooting, companionship, and the relative radness of the state of Arkansas. It’s Stapleton through and through; uncompromising and hard to define, it’s all buoyed by Stapleton’s mammoth of a voice.
In addition to Stapleton’s road band and wife, muse, and collaborator Morgane Stapleton, he is joined here by Heartbreakers Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell, who recently lost the lead singer in their genre-breaking band. Petty is a touchpoint that hasn’t come up in Stapleton’s press before, but that comparison makes a lot of sense; Petty was devoted to the song, more than anything, and never cared if his music got classified as rock, new wave, Americana, or pop. It allowed him to be everything to everyone, which is similar to Stapleton: He can be beloved for his voice, for his pop tunes (see his work with Thomas Rhett and Justin Timberlake), his guitar playing, or his songwriting, and while every song on his albums might not read as “country” it definitely reads as “Chris Stapleton.”
The first three tracks of Starting Over illustrate that clearly, as the title track is a strummy, loose little duet between Morgane and Stapleton that sounds like it was recorded around a campfire. “The Devil Always Made Me Think Twice” flips into beast mode, with Stapleton blowing smoke over one of the toughest guitar leads on the album. Then “Cold” takes things in an entirely different direction; it’s a soaring, heavily orchestrated slow-burner that culminates in one of Stapleton’s biggest vocal performances. It could soundtrack a new Bond film tomorrow.
The song that will likely dominate most of the conversation around Starting Over is the last one on the album, “Watch You Burn,” a song about the Route 91 mass shooting during a country festival in Las Vegas. Stapleton gets to the central cowardice it takes to shoot up a crowd at a music festival, ponders how his friends could have been killed, and revels in watching the shooter burn eternally. It might not seem like it’s that much of a reach, but in a genre that has its performers openly stumping for NRA and saying something as small as Black Lives Matter makes you a radical, it makes Stapleton a rare radical. It helps that the song has a gospel choir take it home at the end, and it kicks total ass, too.
There’s a lot to recommend with this record, which is not always something you can say about an album that is likely going to be the commercial bulwark of the record business for the next 18 months. It’s big, it rocks, it’s country, and the song recommending Arkansas makes it seem pretty tight (“Arkansas”). But the song I keep returning to is its smallest in concern: “Maggie’s Song,” a simple ballad about Stapleton’s dog, who died recently. In other hands, that’s a song that could come off as saccharine, but Stapleton captures all the mushy feelings dog owners have about the creatures they share their homes with. “It was raining on a Monday / the day that Maggie died” Stapleton sings, before recounting Maggie’s last day, a segment that will leave anyone with a dog with weak knees. Stapleton might be a commercial colossus, but his strengths are not in appealing to the widest audience; his strength is writing a song about his dog that can crush you on every listen.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.