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.
But why does this guy sell so many records? He writes good songs, he sings well, and he seems like a good dude. What he doesn’t have is an ample supply of pop-star charisma. As the title From A Room suggests, in spite of his supposed “outsider” reputation, Stapleton still sees himself as another workmanlike Music Row insider, plugging away on his guitar every day in the hopes that he’ll find the right combination of chords and heartfelt words about being faithful to your wife or your country that will resonate with a broad audience. At his best, Stapleton’s songs are like potato chips — compact, crispy, and compulsively consumable, even if they might otherwise seem at first glance to be plain or uncomplicated.
Back in May, I compared Stapleton to Tom Petty, who took Stapleton out as an opening act for a small handful of dates on what proved to be Petty’s final concert tour. Like Petty, Stapleton specializes in simple, direct songs with strong choruses and empathetic verses that you find yourself singing along with by the end of the first listen. Vol. 2 includes a track literally called “A Simple Song,” in which Stapleton sings about a guy who worries about his smoking habit, his out-of-work sister, and his high cholesterol, all in the same verse. “But I love my life,” he concludes. “It’s the kids, and the dogs, and you and me.” By the last verse, I was singing about those damn dogs right along with Stapleton.
The Petty comparison is also apt because Stapleton has further underlined his status as a country singer in name only, reiterating the heartland-rock moves of Vol. 1 with even deeper excursions into riff-y blues and blue-eyed soul. My favorite song on Vol. 2 is “Scarecrow In The Garden,” a minor-key dirge that takes an intriguingly literary turn away from Stapleton’s usual tunes about relationships and drinking. Tracing the history of a family of West Virginia farmers from their arrival in America as Irish immigrants to a modern-day working man desperately worried about his future, “Scarecrow In The Garden” calls back to John Mellencamp’s “Rain On The Scarecrow” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The River,” which might as well be country songs in a modern context. It’s the most sophisticated potato chip that Stapleton has yet come up with, and makes me hungry for more.