Album Review – Chris Stapleton’s “Higher”

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Chris Stapleton will be a Country Music Hall of Famer someday. And with the release of his latest album Higher, he ensures that he will help define at least a decade of the country music genre, even if his music isn’t especially “country.” As one of the most ubiquitous, well-recognized, and universally-beloved (or tolerable) performers and songwriters of our time, Stapleton’s legacy is secured and cemented.

It’s been said by others, and Saving Country Music would concur that Higher by Chris Stapleton is everything you expect from a Stapleton release. He doesn’t stray from the formula, because there is very little reason to. At 45 years of age and Stapleton selling out arenas seven minutes after tickets go on sale, the incentives to stray from the script are slim to none.

Though some love to say an album like this defies genre, what it doesn’t defy is the sound that Chris Stapleton has established for himself, which is a soulful voice and a Southern approach that sees his songs act as launching pads for soaring performances, while allowing ample opportunities for Stapleton to flex his guitar skills.

Just like his previous four solo albums, Stapleton records at RCA’s Studio ‘A’ with his backing band of J.T. Cure on bass, Derek Mixon on drums, and wife Morgane on background vocals as well as electronic keys and tambourine. Lee Pardini also adds some important piano and organ to the mix, and Paul Franklin’s pedal steel makes some welcomed appearances. Though it’s all produced by Dave Cobb once again, this time both Chris and Morgane are cited as co-producers.

One difference between Higher and the previous four albums is Stapleton is relying more on truly new material this time. The From A Room volumes both felt like Stapleton unloading previously-written songs from his catalog to keep the momentum of his blockbuster debut Traveller going. 2020’s Starting Over had some of that too, with a couple of recognizable covers as well.

Higher makes a concerted effort towards more fresh stuff, with the studio team of Stapleton, Mixon, Cure, and Cobb being given song credits on three separate tracks. Miranda Lambert co-wrote the opening song “What Am I Gonna Do,” and long time Stapleton co-writer Kendall Marvel gets a co-write with Tim James on “Loving You On My Mind.”

The song “White Horse” co-written with Dan Wilson preceded the album, and might be the greatest specimen of Chris Stapleton music ever released. Though naysayers will still claim it is pedestrian like all Stapleton songs, an open heart will feel this track raise the pulse and lift the spirit, with an elevated amount of composition and layering making it stand out from the rest of Stapleton’s catalog, driven home by a Southern rock attitude.

Aside from “South Dakota” that carries a bit of an bluesy and Outlaw aspect to it, Higher in many respects is an album of love songs and devotion, with “It Takes A Woman,” “The Fire,” “Think I’m In Love With You,” “Loving You On My Mind,” “White Horse,” and “Higher” creating the heart of the album’s message. The harmonies of Chris and Morgane tie these songs to their real-world inspirations. With now five children in the household, there’s a reason some of these songs take on a baby making vibe. The title track calls to mind Luther Vandross, only clothed in a more country aspect.

But these middle songs are also where this album drags a bit. Sometimes without the traditional verse/chorus setup—or a bridge to break up what becomes a rather monotonous listening experience—these songs just sort of drone along on revolving chords and a similar theme, making them easy to background in your attention span as opposed to compelling a more active involvement from the audience. Then again, this is what some people want from their music, including a lot of Stapleton fans.

This is definitely more of a groove album that a songwriter one. But then the final 1/3rd of the album shakes it up and becomes more singer/songwriter based, and more country. Steel guitar player Paul Franklin appears on tracks 11 to 13, and this is where more devout country listeners should point their ears. The final song “Mountains of My Mind” is Stapleton’s only solo-written song, and shows a deeper and more unresolved moment that we’re used to hearing from him.

Even with these textures though, Higher strains to win your undivided attention as a cohesive listen, even if the album feels cohesive to itself, and specific songs individually feel extraordinary. It’s also this same consistency that has ensconced Chris Stapleton as country music’s most reliable superstar, and unlike some of his counterparts in the mainstream, deservedly so.

It’s not exactly country, but it’s not really more at home in any other genre either. It may not be the music that most defines your life, but it’s music you don’t mind moving in and out of it. It’s Chris Stapleton, which means always on brand, always enjoyable, even if rarely exceptional. This is what you can expect from Higher.


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