After the towering success he’s attained over the past couple of years, Chris Stapleton needs no validation as a singer, songwriter, guitarist and bona fide country star.
Nonetheless, From a Room, Vol. 1 — the first of two full-length albums the hirsute Kentuckian plans to release this year — showcases all of the good qualities that propelled Stapleton into the spotlight and solidifies his place at the forefront of current male country artists.
That should elicit a sigh of relief from fans of what they’d call “real” country music. As magnificently multi-talented as Stapleton is, the fact remains: His breakthrough, 2015’s Traveller, was his first solo album after several years working in a bluegrass band and as a back-room songwriter in Nashville. Validation or no, if his follow up flopped, some would’ve written Stapleton off as an unconventional flash in the pan.
Artistically, at least, From a Room nips that idea in the bud. It’s an efficient collection of performances that not only show off Stapleton’s skills, but also hint at a possible stylistic shift on the second volume, due later this year. That’s exciting.
But first, Volume 1: Stapleton kicks off the album by underlining his country chops with “Broken Halos,” a perfectly paced song that lyrically spans the spiritual and the earthbound. He then delivers a spot-on cover of Willie Nelson’s hit 1982 heartbreaker “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning.” It’s the only non-original in the tracklist, and unlike many covers, it doesn’t feel superfluous.
Stapleton steps on the gas with “Second One to Know,” a bar-band ripper with a swaggering chorus and a scalding guitar solo. It’s a rowdy good time, but sitting next to another can’t-miss country hit called “Up to No Good Livin’,” it lacks Stapleton’s natural acuity for clever wordplay and traditionally twangy sounds. “Up to No Good Livin’,” on the other hand, is a masterpiece, streaked with pedal steel guitar and stocked with sharp lyrical details. The narrator, widely known as “the Picasso of painting the town,” worries that he may never be able to convince his lady that he has truly left his wild days behind. “She finds it hard to believe that she’s turned me around,” he sings. “I’ll probably die before I live all my up-to-no-good livin’ down.”
(A quick side note here: Listen to From a Room, Vol. 1 on good speakers or good headphones, if for no other reason than to listen to Chris Stapleton sing. The man’s voice is an all-consuming force: powerful, agile, luxurious, riveting. There’s no one better right now.)
On the back end, Stapleton offers a sparsely arranged requiem for a dormant marriage (“Either Way”), a bluesy plea for another chance (“I Was Wrong”), a ragged roadhouse weed-jam (“Them Stems”) and a slow-burning lament for lost love that, musically, recalls a brooding alt-rock ballad (“Without Your Love”). Each one is charming and sturdy and well put together, evidence of an artist who is at the very top of his game and ready to reach even higher. Here’s looking forward to Volume 2.