Once the frontman of bluegrass group The SteelDrivers and Southern rock outfit The Jompson Brothers, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton has been hailed as the saviour of contemporary country music since the release of his solo debut, Traveller, for Mercury Nashville in 2015. Whilst I personally don’t believe that Stapleton’s style came to full fruition on this album, Traveller nevertheless made clear that this artist was indeed a breath of fresh air within the modern country music scene, in that Stapleton secured one of the most commercially and critically successful records of that year, stimulating somewhat of a resurgence in country’s mainstream popularity, and all without the backing of mainstream country radio. With radio airplay being an especially important force in determining the success of country artists in particular, such a rise to prominence was as unusual as it was undoubtedly exciting for country fans who felt that the genre needed a refreshing change of pace from the artists who had been dominating airwaves, column inches and music charts at the time. Indeed, although the music on Traveller, in my opinion, seldom reinforced Stapleton’s booming voice with an appropriate amount of power, the compelling and poignant stories from the singer, which detailed his own, unique take on themes of loss, regret and mortality, were the album’s key points of appeal. Undoubtedly, Chris Stapleton is a charismatic character in contemporary country music, but Traveller only left a minimal impression on me from a musical standpoint, and so I have been hoping that future material from the musician will see some weightier instrumentals accompany his appealing persona. Stapleton’s latest album, From A Room; Volume 1, once again sees the artist work with the support of legendary country record producer Dave Cobb, but the music on the record is much more sparse and the sonic quality of the recording is much lighter, essentially taking Stapleton’s sound in the opposite direction of the style that would best suit him. Once again, however, the singer himself is the salient selling point of the album, but this is also played to a lesser extent than on Traveller, and it seems that much of this is to do with the fact that Mercury Nashville don’t quite know how to package Stapleton. With From A Room: Volume 1 being the first of a two-part album series from the artist to be released in 2017, the nine songs that comprise the tracklisting barely reach over half an hour in length and, bearing in mind that one song, Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning, is a Willie Nelson cover and another, Either Way, is a song co-written by Stapleton for Lee Ann Womack’s 2008 record Call Me Crazy, it seems as if the musician doesn’t have the material to make this a viable decision. Ultimately, although Stapleton’s usual charm is more than enough to salvage the material presented here from being completely colourless, From A Room: Volume 1 feels underwritten and underproduced nonetheless, and is certainly a far cry from the album to fully actualise the artist’s indisputable potential.
From A Room: Volume 1 opens with Broken Halos, which comes closer to properly fortifying Stapleton’s sound than any other song on the record. Like most of the cuts in the tracklisting, the instrumental arrangement is relatively minimal, comprised only of two acoustic guitars, a bass and light drumming, but unlike other points on the album, the production is sufficiently dense for supporting Stapleton’s gruff voice. Similarly, the contributions from Stapleton’s wife, Morgane, who provides backing vocals during the song’s refrain, pad the song out with a feeling of light and shade that makes up for the track’s bare-bones timbre. Broken Halos also boasts what is surely Stapleton’s most endearing lyrical venture on From A Room: Volume 1, with the singer’s memories of a childhood friend lost to pancreatic cancer at the age of 37 preserving this person as an angel both before and after their passing, therefore viewing his death as the end of his service to this world and the beginning of new purpose in some other life. It’s songs such as these, wherein Stapleton shines an interesting and soothing new light on an oft-covered theme such as death, that made the best moments from Traveller so compelling. It’s a shame, therefore, that other songs from From A Room: Volume 1 see the singer touch on commonplace topics for country music without spinning any new narratives, instead simply retelling stories that have already been told, and arguably better. The closing track, Death Row, stands out as a prime example of this, with the song detailing the final thoughts of a prisoner waiting to be executed. Such a lyrical idea has been a go-to topic for blues, country and folk music since the early 20th Century, and Stapleton doesn’t put any twist on this tale to make it his own, rather he invokes many of the same motifs that typically come with this territory. Stapleton’s lyrical chops on Them Stems are lacking for similar reasons, with the song dealing with drug usage much in the same style of delivery as Might As Well Get Stoned from Traveller. Them Stems specifically paints a picture of dependence on marijuana and a vicious cycle of getting high as a means of dealing with personal problems, only to have more personal problems ensue as a result of the narrator’s addiction to weed. However, with the singer conveying these ideas through rhyming couplets as rudimentary as, “My dealer, he’s been out of town / And that’s really got me down” and, “My baby, she done said goodbye / And all I ever do is cry”, Stapleton’s execution of this arc lacks the potency to follow through with the amount of emotional weight that this subject deserves. Ultimately, although Stapleton hasn’t entirely lost his flair for captivating story-crafting on From A Room: Volume 1, there is most definitely a lot less focus and appetite for artistic adventure in his lyrics on this album when compared to Traveller, with fewer examples of these tales being finalised with a satisfying pay-off as a result.
On the musical side of things, just like Traveller, it’s the thicker arrangements, in which the instrumentation is given room to pick up some steam, that most fittingly support Stapleton’s forceful voice on From A Room: Volume 1. One need look no further than the fiery Southern rock attitude of Second One To Know as proof of this. Although adhering to the same sauntering, mid-tempo groove to feature on many other cuts in the tracklisting, the punchy electric guitars and forceful vocal melodies from Stapleton and his wife translate the swagger of a roots rock band’s live performance, which is captured perfectly through Cobb’s crisp production chops. It’s elsewhere on the record, however, wherein the instrumentation wears thin, that certain songs suffer from the attempts to strip back Stapleton’s sound. The artist’s cover of Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning, for example, follows Nelson’s version rather closely in form, whilst substituting the lush timbre of the original for an arrangement that is more fitting for the general tone of From A Room: Volume 1. Without the warm keyboards, gut string guitar and rich quality of Nelson’s voice, however, Stapleton’s rendition is significantly plainer, in a way that leaves little to strengthen the musician’s already powerful voice. On the artist’s version of Either Way, this issue isn’t quite as pronounced, as there is certainly something very compelling about Stapleton’s singing soaring above the smattering of gentle broken chords from a shimmering acoustic guitar, but it nevertheless feels as if the song is edging towards a finale that sees a full-band enter to match the forcefulness of the vocals, but alas, this never materialises. Generally speaking, whether it be the honky-tonk tinge to Up To No Good Livin’ or the blue-eyed soul stylings of I Was Wrong, even the instrumental arrangements that are more tailored towards Stapleton’s soulful singing style would greatly benefit from the same dose of charisma present in the artist’s persona that has stimulated his rapid rise to fame.
The fact that few of the shortcomings of From A Room: Volume 1 can be attributed to Chris Stapleton himself is rather telling of the fact that, whilst a strong artist, the singer has yet to completely find his voice as a solo musician. Stapleton’s robust character is more than enough to carry even the most instrumentally sparse of cuts in the tracklisting, but it is still clear that, for the most part, the overall timbre of the album is not as well fitted to the singer’s sound as some thicker arrangements would likely be. Of course, it is nevertheless unfortunate that even Stapleton’s lyrics on From A Room: Volume 1 are far from ranking amongst his most captivating a lot of the time, but again, this most likely comes back to the questionable choice to release From A Room as two separate volumes, with the filler present here surely resulting directly from this. Indeed, the weak points of the record largely boil down to a sense of constraint that is holding Stapleton back from producing his first truly defining album. If freed from these limitations, however, Stapleton could easily live up to the pedestal he has found himself on since the outbreak of his unprecedented success within the country music scene.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6.5/10