Chris Stapleton’s Journey Continues With Far-Reaching New Album, ‘Higher’
Ever since his earliest solo albums, Chris Stapleton has sung about immersive love and profound loneliness, in just about equal measure.
His love songs are warm and complete, their authenticity bolstered by the fact that he typically performs standing next to his wife and collaborator, Morgane. But the darker subject matter rings equally true. Inspired by topics including his father's death and his own tumultuous history with alcohol, Stapleton sings of grizzled loneliness, regret and (often self-inflicted) isolation.
In the songs on his new album, Higher, those lyrical juxtapositions continue to coexist. The first single, "White Horse," tells a story about love that's got some missing pieces: Stapleton sees true partnership in the distance, but he's still got a lot of working and living to do to get there. "Someday maybe you could have your way / Right now's just not the time," he sings, though in the chorus, he hopes his love interest will wait for him to be ready: "Hold on tight girl, I ain't there yet."
But a few tracks earlier, in "Trust," he's all in, with emotional hang-ups squarely in the rear view. "Though we're blindfolded / When we turn on the light / I know everything will be all right," he assures his lover in this track.
The opening song on the album — a co-write between Stapleton and Miranda Lambert called "What Am I Gonna Do" — is a heartbroken lullaby that asks a question: Once he's done nursing a heartbreak that's consumed his identity, what will be left of him? "What am I gonna be / When you're just a memory?" Stapleton wonders. Later on, in "The Day I Die," he finds an answer: "When there's a day I can live without you baby / It'll be the day I die," he grimly affirms.
It's worth noting that Stapleton's more heartbroken subject matter tends to coincide with his most traditional country songs. The singer can do tear-in-your-beer country with the best of them, but he's not exclusively a traditionalist: Stapleton has proudly worn his soul and rock stripes since the beginning of his career. On Higher, he continues his trend of stylistic experimentation with increasing depth and nuance.
Stapleton's songs are at their sexiest when they trend toward soul and the blues: Check out "Think I'm in Love With You" and "Loving You on My Mind," for two. Meanwhile, songs including "White Horse" and "South Dakota" pair lyrical themes of conflict with a more blustery rock sound. Stapleton's not reinventing what his music sounds like, but he is expanding it a few inches in every direction. Likewise, though he arguably has the most celebrated voice in the genre, he still makes an effort to push his vocals to new (literal) heights. In the title track of Higher, Stapleton pushes to the rafters for a note that's no easy feat — even for him.
What keeps this ever-more-inclusive sound cohesive is Stapleton's steadfast musical identity. No matter whether he's singing country-rock or the blues, a love ballad or a nomad's ode to heartache, you know a Stapleton song when you hear one. Ragged, reflective and eternally on a journey toward peace and self-understanding, the singer is the same traveler on Higher that he was when he first started releasing solo music.
That's clearer than ever on the final track, "Mountains of My Mind," which Stapleton wrote solo. In its lyrics, he describes an eternal, and in some ways, insurmountable quest. No matter how much growth he undergoes, no matter the miles and milestones he puts behind him, Stapleton will always be striving towards some greater destination — musically, and probably personally, too.
"Yes, I've been trying all this and still can't climb the mountains of my mind," he sings in the album's final lines. "Don't worry, I'll be fine, but I still can't climb the mountains of my mind."
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Gallery Credit: Carena Liptak