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Chris Stapleton - Starting Over (Album Review)

Tuesday, 24 November 2020 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Andy Barron

Chris Stapleton’s fourth record is a sterling example of why, when it comes to exhibiting the craft of a bona fide singer-songwriter, the album format always has and always will be king. ‘Starting Over’ is the kind of cohesive effort that makes you pity people who are content to download single songs with little appreciation for either the wider musical context or artistic intent.

Housed inside appropriate cover art that’s essentially a blank white slate, ‘Starting Over’ uses the long player format to present a musically, emotionally and thematically watertight body of work about reconciling, celebrating and contextualising the past in order to move forwards.

Told through both the healthy and unwanted connections we make with ourselves and others, as well as the pain and consequence of fragmentation, addiction, social stagnation and isolation, Stapleton diligently explores the endless push and pull betwixt dark and light as he dissects his overarching theme from every conceivable angle.

The breezy major key title track sets this narrative train in motion, its jaunty strum and rousing harmonies promising bright skies ahead if we stick together and take bold chances. From there old wounds and vices are revisited and hard lessons learned. The twanging, gnarly road stomper Devil Always Made Me Think Twice rips both sonically and lyrically as the narrator chastises his thrillingly unhealthy proclivities.  

Elsewhere, Cold finds Stapleton’s whiskey-scalded, bluesy bark in immense form over a mournful slab of epic heartache that’s equal parts Bobby Womack and Michael Kiwanuka, and When I’m With You, an unhurried country confessional, depicts a recently turned 40-year-old whose unmemorable existence is redeemed by the companionship of his soulmate.

Aided by top drawer ringers including Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell, as well as the resplendent and transcendent harmonies of duetting partner Morgana Stapleton, Chris and producer Dave Cobb use a soft, spacious canvas to capture the album’s positive bent, while counterbalancing that with harder, more intense and claustrophobic soundscapes on numbers born of inner turmoil and a need to let loose.

From the pounding rock ‘n’ roll groove of Arkansas (think Lynyrd Skynyrd with extra blood and guts) to Maggie’s Song, a beautifully sentimental moment about the life and death of Stapleton’s dog that borrows heavily from the Band’s classic The Weight, and Watch You Burn’s ferocious, gospel-infused attack on the perpetrator of the 2017 Las Vegas shootings, these 14 cuts seamlessly shift between styles. But by falling together under the rootsy Americana umbrella, they are both contrasting and complementary as they join to form a superbly sequenced, perfectly-paced record. 

Elsewhere, a trio of covers are integrated without breaking sweat. Not only do John Fogerty’s Joy Of My Life, Guy Clark’s intimate talk country number Old Friends, and his weed smoking romp Worry B Gone, fit the record’s storytelling blueprint, but Stapleton’s hypnotically veracious delivery, and understanding of their material, adds a depth of conviction that, heresy be damned, sees them best the originals.

While the subjects tackled here are neither revelatory nor groundbreaking, ‘Starting Over’ is full of superbly written, personal songs that work well on their own and even better together. Musically gorgeous and exhilarating, lyrically touching and relatable, emotionally potent and truthful, it’s a supremely sculpted, deeply synergistic work. 


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