This was a year in which it seemed everybody wanted to put out more than one album. From Future’s back-to-back releases to King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s four (maybe five coming?) LPs, hyperactivity has been a definite key to success in our hyper-saturated music market. And although this marketing trick has seen most of its use in the hip-hop market, Chris Stapleton is here to show that it’s just as effective in the country scene as anywhere. Just seven months removed from From A Room, Vol. 1, the ragged-bearded outlaw bard is back with another 32 minutes of heartbreak, folk storytelling, and of course, staggering vocal chops.
The move to release Stapleton’s 18 songs over two volumes and seven months is exceptionally effective as consumers continue driving towards a single-listening mindset. It allows the first volume’s songs room to breathe and sink into our memories and playlists just long enough before getting hit with Volume 2. With a delayed look at Volume 2’s songs, any repeated themes or forms feel fresh and less like filler.
For example, Volume 2 begins with “Millionaire,” a Kevin Welch cover with a modern country vibe similar to Volume 1’s kickoff track “Broken Halos”. Releasing these tracks separately allows them both to serve as strong openers. “Millionaire” also features one of Stapleton’s greatest strengths, his tight harmonies with wife and fellow songwriter Morgane Hayes-Stapleton. If Chris’s voice is a lion’s roar, Morgane’s is sweet Southern honey.
And the combination is perfection, as heard on “Scarecrow in the Garden”, which also features some of Stapleton’s best lyricism thus far. On the surface, it tells the story of a West Virginian farm passed down from Irish immigrants through years of prosperity and fear. But below that, Stapleton comments on an America that was once “green as dollars”, but now is plagued by evil. “I’ve been sitting here all morning / I was sitting here all night / There’s a bible in my left hand / and a pistol in my right.” The song ends vaguely as the narrator is either depressed with what his land has become, or else ready to act with prayer and intensity to see restoration. Either way, never have Stapleton’s lyrics been so captivating and Dylan-esque as on this track.
Vol. 2 was also able to capitalize on some of the weaknesses of Vol. 1. Where “Death Row” felt like a under-developed missed opportunity for an outlaw prison song, “Midnight Train to Memphis”, which he formerly recorded with the Steeldrivers, comes in with rumbling ferocity as the doubled guitar/bass solos elevate the song to an instant blues-rock classic and one of Stapleton’s most exciting tracks to date.
Gospel influences show up here as well on the Pops Staples-recorded “Friendship” and the regret-filled “Tryin’ to Untangle My Mind” as Stapleton laments, “If you see me, and I’m lonesome and stoned / So far down, the devil’s looking high / I’m just trying to untangle my mind.” As always, Stapleton balances biblical weightiness with a relatability akin to Johnny Cash. That is seen again on “Drunkard’s Prayer”, as he anguishes “I wish that I could go to church / But I’m too ashamed of me / I hate the fact it takes a bottle / To get me on my knees.”
The warm, room-like closeness of the entire album lives up to its name. Whether intimate and vulnerable acoustic guitar-only ballads like “Drunkard’s Prayer” or Southern rockers like “Hard Livin'”, the music is produced and engineered to make you feel like you’re part of the music. And that’s an essential key to really experiencing Stapleton’s words and feelings as he portrays suffering and hardship. But comfort is found even in the midst of it, as Stapleton shares on “A Simple Song”, “I love my life / Man, it’s something to see / It’s the kids and the dogs and you and me / It’s the way it’s alright when everything goes wrong.” It’s Stapleton’s grasp on the constant joys of life despite the troubles that makes his music essential and enduring.