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Chris Stapleton - From A Room: Volume 2 (Album Review)

Thursday, 07 December 2017 Written by Simon Ramsay

Whenever an artist releases a swift follow up to their previous record that includes material culled from the same sessions, any excitement is often curtailed by the nagging concern you’re about to be served reheated leftovers. 

Guns N’ Roses' ‘Use Your Illusion’ records were crammed with filler and, even now, fans still attempt to create one definitive collection from their best tracks. Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Human Touch’ was eclipsed by ‘Lucky Town’, and Metallica’s ‘Reload’, which landed a year after ‘Load’, was full of material that belonged on the cutting room floor.

So how has Chris Stapleton bucked the trend when, at least on the surface, ‘From A Room: Volume 2’ seems to be a bit of a mishmash? The answer lies in both the quality of the material and how it’s been fitted together to produce a cohesive album that’s thematically removed from its predecessor.

If ‘Volume One’ was predominantly focused on the complexity of loving relationships, this effort is centred on an individual’s struggles in an increasingly trying world.

Scarecrow in the Garden is a classic folk song that tells the story of a man whose grandparents emigrated to the USA from Northern Ireland and ran a thriving farm. Much like John Mellencamp’s Scarecrow, modern hardships have left the narrator struggling to sustain it and the song closes with the chilling image of him holding a bible in one hand and a shotgun in the other.

Drunkard’s Prayer, meanwhile, is a visceral confession from a tortured alcoholic, and the achingly soulful Nobody’s Lonely Tonight finds two strangers whose faith in love has been destroyed seeking solace in emotionless hook ups.  Elsewhere, the acoustic, ruminative Simple Song depicts a blue collar storyteller who’s content with his existence because, framed against the quotidian hardships of family members less fortunate than him, he realises how lucky he is.

Sometimes, strong material doesn’t make the cut first time around because it’s too similar to another track or is contextually out of step with the rest of the record. The boot-stomping Hard Livin’ – where an off-kilter phased guitar riff reflects the aging narrator’s struggle to maintain his wild side – occupies comparable lyrical ground to the previous album’s Up To No Good Livin’. Likewise, the rocked up Midnight Train To Memphis – which is markedly different than the bluegrass version Stapleton recorded with the Steeldrivers – not only feels musically reminiscent of Second One To Know, but its story of an imprisoned man battling to survive is conceptually more appropriate here.

What works so well about this album, though, is the way its darker content is bookended by two upbeat, redemptive covers. Millionaire, originally recorded by Kevin Welch, and Pops Staples’ Friendship are luxuriously tuneful and given extra depth by Morgane Stapleton’s heavenly harmonies. They leave us in little doubt that Stapleton, although painfully aware of human fallibility and existential torment, believes the key to negotiating all that ails us is to form bonds that strengthen our will to overcome.

Dual records always attract arguments about which is best. On a song-by-song basis, ‘Volume One’ is marginally stronger. But in terms of its broader, deeper storytelling, ‘Volume 2’ is the more interesting album.

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