Chris Stapleton – Higher | Ben’s Beat – Music Reviews


You have to imagine that Chris Stapleton’s trophy case is getting a little overstuffed – having released four studio albums, three of which picked up the Grammy for Country Album of the Year – and with quite a few people online deservedly dubbing him one of the greatest singers alive from a technical standpoint, the release of Higher should continue to push him to new heights. Although a couple reviews have pointed out Stapleton simplifying his lyrical output a little on his latest, it’s easily negated by the outpouring of emotion from his massive, soulful voice filling in all the gaps any listener should need – and his previous project, the excellent Starting Over – was always going to be a tall order to measure up to. As it stands, Stapleton continues to deliver sets of well-performed, high-quality country tunes, bolstering a year where the genre rose to the spotlight of cultural consciousness with the raw talent and musicality that many of his more pop-driven peers lack.

The album opens with its only star-powered assist, as “What Am I Gonna Do” boasts a co-writing credit from Miranda Lambert – though as always, the harmonies in this heartbroken romantic duet are provided instead by Stapleton’s wife, Morgane, dutifully playing the part alongside Chris of wondering what their life will become with the other one no longer in it. A straightforward, twangy duet on the surface, everything is elevated by Stapleton’s performance, wavers of sadness and resignation creeping into his powerful belt as he casts longing glances over at the alcohol cabinet. A soulful guitar solo near the end continues to express the emotion without words. If you’re looking for Stapleton’s trademark rasp, you get it most of all on “South Dakota,” as he puts his entire being into belting the title. While there are a lot of tracks on this project focused on love, this one nods the most to his outlaw country beginnings as he finds himself heading down to a state where “trouble ain’t hard to find.” A bluesy southern-rock backdrop makes it feel like we’re riding through the backcountry with shades on. Being a singer as gifted as Stapleton is allows for an immediate emotional response, so as things switch over from Stapleton out looking for trouble to “Trust,” a bright and uplifting song where he duets with his wife about their undying trust in each other, his ability to be so emotive sends listeners on the best kind of emotional rollercoaster. While this one doesn’t have as much of the complex jam-band musicality of the first two tracks, it’s still a great prelude to the following track, which is the kind of song that should be played while walking down the aisle.

A stripped-back and shuffling ballad that puts the spotlight firmly on Stapleton’s vocals to do all the work they need to, “It Takes A Woman” is his most touching tribute yet to the love that he’s found. When his wife comes in to support him on the chorus after Stapleton talks about all the ways she’s been able to be there for him over the years, it should send goosebumps up the arm of any listener. Not to mention that the melody is placed directly in the sweetest spot of his vocals, hitting the song’s biggest note right as the emotion peaks in the chorus. His cannon of a voice getting a little toned down to blurt out something as simple as “you are my friend,” sounding a little choked up, easily activates the tear ducts. Strangely enough, the album then moves to the only one that feels like a bit of a miss. “The Fire” feels uncharacteristically empty for a Stapleton song, being a little underwritten to leave lengthy pauses and falling more than any other song into lyrical cliches. Stapleton’s falsetto, which appears in the chorus, has always been sparingly used – he actually figures out a better way to use it later on with some more soulful tunes, but over this folksy acoustic loop it doesn’t play into his strengths. Single “Think I’m In Love With You” combines the twangy riffs with a bit of a funk bassline to create a rhythmic playground for a seasoned musician Stapleton to capitalize on all of the pockets. His performance mirrors lyrics about starting to spiral out of control as the true weight of his feelings for another begin to dawn on him, culminating in a final, raspy belt of “Woman!” that stands as the album’s most shell-shocking vocal moment.

Continuing to showcase his versatility, Stapleton genuinely pulls out some 90s R&B tendencies on “Loving You On My Mind.” It’s got the same sensual 2-step drive, and the scoops he does up to some drawn out falsetto notes could have just as easily come from another time and place. Stapleton is really built to be more of a soul singer than a country singer, and this is the track where those abilities get to run wild the most of all as thoughts of his partner cloud his every action throughout the day. Lead single “White Horse” arrives next, carrying all the cinematic drama that introduced fans to this project with it as Stapleton positions himself as trying to step into the image of the cowboy on the white horse riding into the sunset for his partner, falling just a little bit short as some of his past lingers around and delivering this with one of the most consistently powerful vocal performances on the album. The falsetto returns on “Higher” to juxtapose with some of the most prominent slide guitars on the project – Stapleton using the title track to push his voice to increasingly lofty heights as he describes the effect his partner’s devotion has on him. It must be pretty incredible stuff he’s singing about, for it to be able to push a voice that we already thought had few limitations to previously uncharted territory. Many have been rightfully comparing “The Bottom” to Bruce Springsteen’s work, and it’s true that a bit of Stapleton’s distinct musical style disappears a little bit under the weight of that comparison. The chorus isn’t quite as explosive as we’re used to, but it’s a pretty solid homage.

“The Day I Die” is another highly emotional and slide guitar-laden ballad where Stapleton uses his storytelling gravitas to admit that should there be a time that he finds himself having gotten over any kind of separation from his partner, there wouldn’t be much more reason for him to go on living. The sentimentality continues in the album’s late goings on “Weight Of Your World,” Stapleton vowing to shoulder any possible burden. These two tracks bookend the last upbeat number here, “Crosswind.” Running through a variety of truck-driving metaphors, the jokes about it soundtracking a laughably machismo-driven commercial for Ford Truck Month have been flying – but if they really decided to use it, it would at least be a musical upgrade on what they currently have going on from the standpoint of soul. The album closes with Stapleton nodding to mental health on “Mountains of My Mind,” and while a little more lyrical specificity might have been appreciated on this track as the extent of what exactly Stapleton’s mountains represent are left up to interpretation, it’s still nice to hear someone of his age and genre acknowledging it.

Regardless of your typical musical preferences, it’s been clear since his debut back in 2015 that any new collection of songs from Chris Stapleton is something to treasure. Even when certain parts of his output are a little more stripped back than usual – in this case, the songwriting – he has the kind of once-in-a-generation voice that’s going to make anything worthwhile.

Favourite Tracks: It Takes A Woman, Loving You On My Mind, White Horse, What Am I Gonna Do, Think I’m In Love With You

Least Favourite Track: The Fire

Score: 8/10

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