It’s hard to imagine why Chris Stapleton would feel the need to start over just now. Five years ago, his debut solo album Traveller put him into permanent stardom (such as stardom ever is), and he’s only followed that with a mess of awards and a knack for gathering both critical and commercial support. Starting Over doesn’t do so much of what its title suggests as it builds on Stapleton’s solid foundation across rootsy music for another decisive step forward.
Stapleton might be a quintessentially country artist right now, but he’s become so by mixing Americana, rock, and even R&B; the trend continues. “Cold” won’t ever be his most innovative track, but its R&B sound allows his voice to come forward. Stapleton has powerful vocals, but his artistic delivery gives this track life, overcoming some of the cliched lyrics. As much as he can be a throwback artist, he’s looking back to old soul here rather than some of his more expected influences.
He offers another unusual take when he covers John Fogerty’s album cut “Joy of My Life”, an okay song giving some extra warmth here with Stapleton’s singing and Dave Cobb’s production. The album’s other two covers (aside from both being by the same artist) make sense. Stapleton’s honky-tonk shuffle of Guy Clark’s “Worry B Gone” resituates the album into country territory after some more rock-based material. He follows it immediately with a masterful version of Clark’s classic “Old Friends”. It’s almost hard to do this song wrong, but it would be a disservice to Stapleton not to note his gift in creating a version worthy of its lineage.
Of course, Stapleton’s writing provides the heart of the album. “Watch You Burn” gets angry and a little topical, with Stapleton watching the shooter from the Route 91 Harvest (and other mass killers) get fiery justice, in this case as the devil watches them burn. The song fits oddly between “Old Friends” and the steady groove of conflicted sexual tension in “You Should Probably Leave”. The sequence works better than might be expected, in part because the album largely allows Stapleton room to wander. Rather than sticking to a particular mood or style, he wraps up an armful of Americana and employs it as needed.
That attitude leads to a Stapleton-specific vision within the less focused aesthetic. “Maggie’s Song” tells the true tale of his dog, from her discovery in a shopping cart to her burial. Dog lovers will embrace this one, its comfortable tones being a balm (even if it relies heavily on the sound of the Band). The opening title track explains the overarching vision, to take what (or, more urgently, who) matters and find that the big risks are worth taking. Over a folk-rock guitar, Stapleton sings to his wife, “We’ve been saving for a rainy day / Let’s beat the storm and be on our way.” It’s an adventure with as much as it’s without, and it frames the album well, moving an ongoing journey into new spaces. Stapleton, the artist, isn’t beginning, and he does not need to. With
Starting Over, he furrows broad terrain with confidence, leading to plenty.