A&E Review

Chris Stapleton’s Vocals on “Higher” Will Tear You to Pieces Just to Put You Back Together

Photo courtesy of Genius.

Deeply rooted in love, angst and a sliver of honky-tonk, country singer Chris Stapleton steamrolls through his fifth studio album, “Higher.” The 45-year-old artist, who hails from Kentucky, makes good use of his southern twang and rustic voice to deliver one of the most riveting country albums this year.

Stapleton’s rendition of the National Anthem during Super Bowl LVII brought America’s fiercest competitors to tears — and by no mistake. The bellowing notes that come from deep in his gut put listeners in a trance, and his 14-track project became another Stapleton product to move his audience.

Scan to listen to “Higher.”

What establishes Stapleton as a man among boys — besides being in his mid-40s — is the quality of production and lyrics. To simply put it, Stapleton doesn’t mess around. Comparing the girl of your dreams to an ice-cold beer, brand new Chevy or a Tennessee sunset are obvious cop-outs for the majority of country singers. Stapleton doesn’t do cop-outs. 

The experienced singer-songwriter finds beautiful, unique ways to express love, heartbreak and all the in-betweens humans go through while in love. “Higher” is Stapleton’s way of starting at the heartbreak and tracing back through all the ups and downs of this love story. 

We start with “What Am I Gonna Do,” an opening track establishing that Stapleton lost something or someone who was perfect for him. There’s no drink, song or alternative person that’s going to fill this void in Stapleton’s soul. However, he makes us move on with him — and to a much more lively song.

The honky-tonk aspect of this album comes on “South Dakota.” The track is a total headbanger, and the once somber Stapleton that greeted us to begin the album is far more expressive on this second track. This is the “forget my ex” portion of the album, and an era that the reflective Stapleton won’t be able to last very long in.

The next trio of songs, “Trust,” “It Takes A Woman” and “The Fire” are sung by an empty Stapleton. The only thing left in him is his ear-piercing twang, and his lyrics come from a heartbroken voice. 

“When I’m in the dark, you are the light / When I get lost, You know right where to find me,” croons Stapleton on “It Takes A Woman,” who had just been belting out fiery verses on “South Dakota.”

I love this transition though, and as a listener, I appreciate the variety of songs we already get only a third of the way through the project. This run of soft songs is a trademark Stapleton creation, and instantly reminded me of past love songs like “Joy Of My Life.”

Wipe your tears away. After “The Fire,” Stapleton jumps back into Nashville-style bar songs meant to get your knees bouncing and head bobbing. “Think I’m In Love With You” takes the listener to the next stage of “Higher,” and one in which Stapleton is head over heels.

The professions of love that Stapleton sings out in these songs at the midway point of the album makes the desperation of the opening track hit even harder. The love was so exciting for Stapleton, and on “White Horse” he even compares his emotions to a loaded gun.

That “too good to be true” feeling sits like sunken rocks at the bottom of his stomach, and Stapleton cries out for his lover to hold on tight because “he ain’t there yet.”

“White Horse” feels like the last song with a fire under it. The overwhelming feeling of love Stapleton sings about was too much to handle, and we begin our descent back down to the harsh reality that he has lost this love.

Navigating this heartbreak begins on “The Bottom,” a track I would argue is the most poetic on “Higher.” Stapleton avoids cliches when describing love, and he follows this pattern when voicing his heartbreak. This gut-wrenching feeling is more than getting mud on your boots, not catching any fish or watching your chilled beer turn to room temperature — sorry to the other country singers but you guys have got to step up your game.

To Stapleton, “Love is a mystery, it’s a tricky thing / It’s more than a word, it’s more than a ring,” and so when this complicated thing goes wrong Stapleton hits rock bottom.

The chorus of this song is so intricately performed and rings a much deeper meaning than what listeners might reel in after just one listen. Stapleton sings that there’s no amount of smoke or booze that can hide what the heart regrets, and at the end of the day the memory of this woman he loved will rest at the bottom of the glass; therefore he won’t have a problem if his glass never runs empty.

There’s an incredible amount of angst in these lyrics as the song dies off, and the ending of the album is even more poetic. This character Stapleton sings through in “Higher” comes full circle in “Weight Of Your World.” He’s done with bitterness, regret, sadness and just wants to mend what he ruined. He begs for his love to place all her baggage upon his shoulders.

When it felt as if there was no hope on just the first song on the album, “Mountains Of My Mind” is the complete transformation of a once desperate Stapleton in the final song of the project. Stapleton reflects on each stage of this love story and the songs that came with it. The pain and regret have brought him to this realization: There is no need to try and win something unattainable back, no need to go and curse the world, no need to fill his void with substances. 

“Yes, I’ve been trying all this time / And still can’t climb the mountains of my mind / Don’t worry, I’ll be fine,” Stapleton quivers as his guitar fills the final moments of silence.

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