Less a cohesive album than a sharply curated collection.
Chris Stapleton’s third solo release is his second of 2017, but like this summer’s From a Room: Volume 1, the next volume is less a cohesive album than a sharply curated collection. It one more in a lengthy list of reasons Stapleton is one of the finest singer-songwriters working in any genre today.
The set’s nine songs form a blossoming venn diagram of folk, blues, country and rock with Stapleton’s backing band hulking up or hanging back as each tune requires. They might be blistering and rollicking, as they are with the album’s two boldest concept pieces, “Midnight Train to Memphis” and “Scarecrow in the Garden,” both as rich in sonics as they are terse in textured detail. “Memphis” is Stapleton’s own “Folsom Prison Blues,” albeit a harder charging take on incarceration’s lament, the sort of track that might blare at the beginning of a revenge film before the protagonist is released from his bars to exact rugged, vigilante justice. “Scarecrow,” by contrast, is a more harrowing tale. Stapleton sings of a family’s storied history and how a bloodline’s peaks underline a present day trough.
Another pair highlights Stapleton’s gifts for lyricism, as “Tryin’ to Untangle My Mind” finds plainspoken ways to crystallize an all too relatable labyrinth of stressors and struggles. It’s a jagged but palatable tune that digs at a man’s inner strife with a surgeon’s scalpel before neatly arranging those knotty inner bits into easygoing couplets and singalong catharsis. On the flipside, “A Simple Song” is exactly that, a low strumming grocery list of life’s setbacks cantilevered by the modest comforts we take for granted. It’s a wise man finding solace in his wife, his children and the camaraderie of his dog to form a cozy shield from the ills of the world.
Stapleton says a lot with very little, but the album is at its beat on bookended cover songs. It opens with a dulcet duet of Kevin Welch’s “Millionaire,” performed with his wife Morgane to make a rock solid couple aggrandizing love, the original cryptocurrency. He closes with the tender counterbalance of his lover’s backing vocals on a take of Homer Banks’ and Lester Snell’s “Friendship.”
There’s something undeniably schmaltzy about such a simple ode to comrades and helping those who’ve helped you, but the way Stapleton sings the words, like providing support and admiration for a friend, or the family you choose, is a rare blessing in this world. The comforting timbre of his voice bolsters warm platitudes into nourishing poetry. When he sings, “You weigh less than you think/ I’ll carry you through the sinking sand/ see if I’ll let you sink,” it’s both a dramatic distillation of the complexities of friendship and a knowing, winking in-joke. With those closing moments, Stapleton sounds like America’s best friend. Such earnestness and sincerity are the cornerstones of his act, and it’s all real. That he’s such a sturdy tunesmith is just icing on the cake.