Beginning his career behind the country music curtain as a songwriter for other artists, Chris Stapleton has undoubtedly become a force of nature in his own right with his most recent release Higher. Following career-high collaborations with acts like Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran and Adele, as well as a much-acclaimed discography of four previous albums and several EPs, there’s plenty of pressure on Chris Stapleton to deliver with his fifth full-length project. Unsurprisingly, deliver he does.
Higher boasts Stapleton’s distinctive songwriting style, gravitating towards pop and R&B style melodies, but twisting them to the timeless sounds of country, folk and Americana. His consistently smooth, heartfelt vocals and soulful energy, alongside a willingness to collaborate and create anew, makes Stapleton one of country music’s most important modern stars.
Higher throws listeners right into the country world with the opening track ‘What Am I Gonna Do?’. Co-written by the legendary Miranda Lambert, its slick guitar riffs and lovelorn lyrics introduce the record’s core theme of how love uplifts in times of struggle. Painting a picture of drinking the pain away in a southern bar, it’s clear from the gut-wrenching get-go that Stapleton is willing to bear it all.
This classic pub setting backdrops much of Higher. ‘South Dakota’ is a gritty track controlled by a moody guitar lick any musician would envy. “Trouble ain’t hard to find”, Stapleton croons, crafting a soft rock atmosphere stained with the scent of beer and muddy boots. The later sharp wit and storytelling of ‘The Bottom’ personifies heartbreak as the bottom of a glass, giving reason to Stapleton’s refusal to quit topping up his drink. Thanks to his affected twang and balladeering lyrics, such a striking, timelessly American setting even simmers beneath the more experimental soft folk of ‘The Fire’. Here, Stapleton’s musicianship becomes incredibly complex, driven by serpentine plucked guitars and drumbox-style percussion.
The resounding love of Chris’s long-term marriage to wife Morgane also takes pride of place. “Whenever I’m broken, honey, you heal me”, Stapleton declares on the soulful ‘It Takes A Woman’. This ode to the balance his wife provides his life is made all the more moving by her own delicate backing vocals throughout the album. Their charismatic interplay on each song creates a deep sense of intimacy. Not only does Chris address the intricacies of their relationship with honesty and vulnerability, but their shared performance lets us into a private world. It’s as if we are in on a secret, and resultantly, the music cuts right to the heart.
The upbeat ‘Think I’m In Love With You’ expands upon this further. It’s an emotional confession made romantic in its simplicity. Rather than singing of grand gestures and movie-style moments, Stapleton observes that the strongest loves are built on mutually unwavering faith and support. Led by a relentless groove that expands into orchestral flourishes, gospel wails and impressive rhythmic experimentation, this song is an undeniable album highlight, for how it perfectly pulls in so many different elements to make musical divinity.
Whilst much of the record depicts Stapleton as a cowboy in distress, lead single ‘White Horse’ turns the table and sees him play the saviour who will equally support his partner in her times of need. Asking her to wait just a little while longer before he whisks her away into the sunset, this track packs a real punch, as Stapleton lets rip with a powerful belted vocal over huge drums and fierce, rocking electric guitars. It’s the album’s centrepiece for a reason, the moment a once forlorn songwriter truly takes back the reins.
By the album’s final tracks, it’s clear you’d be hard-pressed to find an artist as truly country in the genre’s current landscape. He’s a “bat out of hell” driving down desert highways on the sweeping ‘Crosswind’, forever travelling to find his better self on ‘Weight of the World’. The fragile finale ‘Mountains in my Mind’ acknowledges that whilst the project has been one emotional journey to self-improvement, there is indeed still Higher to climb. In their authentic, personal narratives and natural production, this impressive final trio of tracks feel destined to become Americana standards.
Across Higher, Chris Stapleton seeks salvation as equally as he offers to aid to others in the same boat. He’s fighting his demons, but in the same vein, ready to fight those battles for the people he loves. Amidst the record’s deepest depths, he asks, plainly and profoundly, “Why can’t you see the fire inside of me?” But it’s a question rendered unnecessary by the album itself. Stapleton once again has proven himself one of country’s most inventive and interesting figureheads, a performer who will surely pioneer the genre to endlessly greater heights to come.