When Chris Stapleton elected to release From A Room as two separate volumes this year, you had to wonder what he was up to. Was Nashville’s biggest “insurgent” star using his new elevated platform to get ambitious, and maybe even a little pretentious? Was he, in the parlance of superstar companion albums, totally using his illusion in service of an epic statement?
Actually, no. Chris Stapleton in 2017 is not Axl Rose in 1991, whose extreme megalomania willed into existence two double-albums, Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II, released on the same day 26 years ago this autumn. Inherently modest even now as a reigning arena headliner, Stapleton spaced out each From A Room volume about seven months apart, all the better to appreciate the brawny, understated, and well-crafted pleasures of these nearly identical 32-minute albums. But now that both volumes are out in the world, it’s hard to think of them as anything other than a single work that has been arbitrarily split into two records.
If forced to choose, I’d say that From A Room: Vol. 2 is maybe a half-notch below this spring’s Vol. 1.. The latest From A Room doesn’t match the high points from the first installment — the heart-tugging ballad “Broken Halos,” the blues-rocking “Second One To Know,” the stark closer “Death Room.” But it might be slightly more consistent, cozily settling into a steady mid-tempo groove of jangly guitars and growly, big-papa vocals, per Stapleton’s comfort zone. It feels, in other words, like the back half of a longish LP, the part where the deep cuts are found once you’ve plowed past the front-loaded hits.
Without question, Vol. 2 \ follows a similar trajectory as Vol. 1. Vol. 2’s earnest opener “Millionaire” resembles the broad-shouldered family man narrative of “Broken Halos.” The feisty “Midnight Train To Memphis” fills the slot occupied by “Second One To Know.” “Drunkard’s Prayer” plumbs the same dark depths as Vol. 1‘s emotional highpoint, “Either Way.” Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 clearly belong together; you can’t listen to one without instantly being reminded of the other. They rhyme.
If you need an explanation as to why From A Room — which as a single album would run about 64 minutes over 18 songs, hardly an unwieldy amount of music — needed to be two records, look no further than the country albums chart. Stapleton’s 2015 debut, Traveller, remains a fixture in the top 10 more than two and a half years after it was released, currently lodged one spot ahead of From A Room: Vol. 1., you don’t have to be a music-marketing genius to see that selling two Stapleton albums in the space of one makes good business sense.