Fresh off his Grammy win (and Album of the Year nomination!) for his debut album, Traveller, Chris Stapleton is back to offer another brief compilation of tracks showcasing his outstanding voice. From A Room: Volume 1 blends together Stapleton’s brand of outlaw country music with aspects of soul, blues and southern rock, genres which better accommodate the gravel in Stapleton’s vocal delivery. Many of these instrumentals are rather stripped back, and for good reason: Stapleton’s vocals are simply unmatched, and the emotion he packs into each note makes these ballads incredibly affecting, as he frequently contemplates lost love. Stapleton just continues to establish his dominance over this musical niche with this album.
Stapleton is a master at writing a great melody, but also at capturing the exact emotion he is trying to convey as the numerous sounds explored on this project are cycled through. “Broken Halos” opens the project with a soulful acoustic ballad, and the musicianship demonstrated by the syncopated guitar pattern and Stapleton’s effortless voice delivering a deceptively simple melody – accompanied by vocals runs and trills you hardly ever see in country – causes you to get lost in the track. It’s 3 minutes long, but it feels like a minute and a half. It then transitions to a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning”, which succeeded at getting me more emotional than perhaps any song this year due to the believability of Stapleton’s performance. He reflects on the immediate aftermath of a relationship’s end to an absolutely heartwrenching degree.
“Up To No Good Livin'” is the peak of Stapleton’s homages to outlaw country, as he tells the story of how he can never escape his past of partying hard – “People called me the Picasso of painting the town”. Although he’s now grown up and changed, nobody believes him, affecting his romantic relationships. This is all set to the most infectious and classic-sounding chorus on the album, backed up by some great harmonies by his apparently equally talented wife, Morgane. She appears on a few tracks here, and their voices bring out the best in each other in a special way that only a deep connection can.
As the album reaches it’s middle point, tracks start getting even more stripped back – “Either Way” and “I Was Wrong” both feature Stapleton stretching his voice to its absolute limits, shocking the listener with its power as he growls his way through some impressively high notes and trills. Stapleton explores quite a few genres on this project, which might get disjointed and confusing for other artists, but he truly possesses the musical ability and the voice to play it all to an enjoyable and effective degree. It just makes it all the more impressive that he can convincingly act as both a classic bluesman and an acoustic country balladeer. Some people are on another level.
The instrumentals here can get a bit too repetitive, although I recognize that this is rather characteristic of genres like blues and southern rock. “Death Row” is a rather quiet and uneventful track to close out on, as Stapleton sings from the perspective of a prisoner counting down his last days. Most of the track contains a symbolically repetitive guitar pattern and fleeting vocals from Stapleton. “Second One To Know” is the most rock-influenced track on the album. He certainly goes all out on the delivery, but this is the only time when the instrumental, a loud guitar loop, becomes distracting from Stapleton’s vocals.
Chris Stapleton has so many effective aspects to his music that his technically perfect vocals are an added bonus. The talent displayed here is nothing short of mindblowing, and should appeal to even the biggest critics of the genre of country music due to its incorporation of other aspects. Watch out, Grammy committee.
Favourite Tracks: Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning, Up To No Good Livin’, Broken Halos, Without Your Love, I Was Wrong
Least Favourite Track: Death Row