Saturday, March 26, 2016

Chris Stapleton - Traveller

Almost exactly two years ago, I had my first listen to Jason Isbell's Southeastern. A masterpiece of tone, storytelling, personal songwriting, and musical restraint, Southeastern was a revelation to me, and it's a record that’s only continued to grow and unfold ever since. Last year, I got a similar feeling the first time I listened to John Fullbright's Songs, which uses spartan arrangements to put the focus on voice, piano, acoustic guitar, and story once more. Fast forward to now, and it seems as if this year's "slow-burn country record that knocks me on my ass" is a role destined to be played by Traveller, a masterful debut album from Kentucky-based singer/songwriter, Chris Stapleton.

On Traveller, Stapleton immediately has a few things in common with both Isbell and Fullbright. For one, his songs often emphasize story: the heartbreaking "Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore" is the best example, delivering a eulogy for Stapleton's late father in a way that only a country ballad could. For another, he often keeps his arrangements sparse, usually favoring contemplative acoustic numbers over smoldering rockers. On Traveller, Stapleton even has Isbell's go-to producer manning the boards. Dave Cobb, who made Southeastern sound as splendid as a summer night, provides similarly organic work here, and the result is one of the loveliest batches of songs you're likely to hear in 2015. The ballads are the best, like the yearning title track, which is almost like an alt-country take on "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," or "When the Stars Come Out," a co-write with pop songwriter Dan Wilson (formerly of "Closing Time" band Semisonic) about finding the American dream in Los Angeles night. But when Stapleton does bring out something with a harder edge, like with the Bob Seger-flavored "Parachute," his commanding, barrel-chested voice carries the day.

Stapleton's voice is undoubtedly his greatest weapon on Traveller. He doesn't quite have the storytelling gift that Isbell has. (Who does? That guy can write incredibly beautiful songs about sexual abuse, dying of cancer, and murderers on the run from their pasts.) However, what Stapleton does have is one of the most unique and versatile voices in modern music—country or otherwise. Usually, he sings like a classic country star: maybe a Waylon Jennings, or a George Jones. His hushed acoustic numbers—the aforementioned "Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore," the mandolin-lead "More of You," or the whisper-soft "Whiskey and You"—put his weathered, road-beaten baritone front and center. Cobb produces these songs so gingerly that they legitimately sound like they are live recordings.

On "Whiskey and You" especially, you can almost see Stapleton there just on the other side of your headphones, performing on a shaded stage in a mostly empty bar. Coupled with confessional lyrics that tackle alcoholism and heartbreak in equal measure ("There's a bottle on the dresser by your ring/And it's empty, so right now I don't feel a thing/And I'll be hurting when I wake up on the floor/But I'll be over it by noon/That's the difference between whiskey and you"), the song sparks with the kind of honesty that most modern country music has lost. Stapleton has written songs for many of the genre's biggest stars, including Luke Bryan ("Drink a Beer"), Darius Rucker ("Come Back Song"), and Kenny Chesney ("Never Wanted Nothing More"), but he is absolutely not comparable to those artists.

On the contrary: where much modern country music ("Bro Country," as they call it) romanticizes drinking and bad decisions, Stapleton never does. His songs do deal with alcohol and drugs as primary themes—beyond "Whiskey and You," there's a cover of "Tennessee Whiskey," an old barroom country song popularized by George Jones; an Eric Church-like barnstormer fitting titled "Might As Well Get Stoned"; and another cover—"Was it 26," originallu a Charlie Daniels Band song—that centers on a guy who can't differentiate between the years of his life because he was too wasted to keep track. But Stapleton is never the guy telling his friends to hop in the truck so that they can go out drinking and spinning donuts by the riverside. Rather, his songs show alcoholism for the devil it is: a force that will make you feel good for a few hours, but ultimately leave you broken, alone, and "hurting on the floor." As NPR said of the album, I hope these songs aren't autobiographical, "for the sake of [Stapleton's] liver and his kids' college funds," but if they are, then it's refreshing to see a songwriter tackle such personal and weighty subjects in such a stark, unflinching way. (The album definitely doesn't shy away from intense emotions, either: Cobb says Stapleton was choking up during takes of "Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore.")

Even if Traveller were a long string of depressing acoustic songs, it would still be a triumph. But as I mentioned previously, Stapleton has the versatility as both a singer and a songwriter to pull off wildly different styles. When he puts down his acoustic guitar and plugs in, his voice morphs from a gentle instrument into a full-bodied roar. Like Springsteen and Seger, Stapleton is not a tenor, but he can hit high notes with grit and force, and it's when he pushes into his higher register that his songs really become hair-raising. Case-in-point is "Parachute," a wrecking ball of a rock song that feels readymade for road trips and arena shows. Song-of-the-year candidate "Fire Away" is also chilling, for how it combines slow-burning tempo, electric guitar, female background vocals, and long sustained high notes into a song that needs to be on every summer nights playlist you make in 2015. And when Stapleton trades country, folk, and rock 'n' roll for old Kentucky soul—as on the aforementioned "Tennessee Whiskey," or the James Brown-flavored "Sometimes I Cry"—the results are downright virtuosic.

Traveller ultimately sticks around for a bit too long to be a masterpiece. At 14 tracks and 64 minutes in length, the album could stand to lose a few tracks—especially since the first half is significantly stronger than the second. Songs like "The Devil Named Music" and "Outlaw State of Mind" feel particularly exhausting—both lasting for longer than five and a half minutes, and both featuring long instrumental jam sections that feel a tad indulgent for an album that is already so long. But even with its unruly sprawl and weak points considered, Traveller is something to marvel at: a debut album that never once feels like a debut album.

Stapleton has now supposedly written more than 150 songs for other artists (including Adele, of all people), and he's spent the past decade fronting the SteelDrivers, a bluegrass band from Nashville. At 37 years old, though, Stapleton technically is releasing his first solo LP with Traveller. And what a remarkable debut it is: artists rarely arrive this fully formed, this self-assured, or this seasoned in their craft. But with his remarkable vocal talent, his ability to write classic country songs in an era where classic country music seems all but dead and buried, and the array of talent at his back—both in his band and behind the boards—Chris Stapleton has already put himself into the rarefied air of country's brightest stars. Between him, Isbell, Fullbright, Sturgill Simpson, and game-changing female artists like Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, and Ashley Monroe, this genre might just have a chance at salvation.

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