Chris Stapleton is the country music artist even avid country music haters will admit to loving. His smooth, silky, and soulful voice is utterly magnetizing, pulling listeners into an atmosphere of raw emotion with every note. With such unmistakable charm, it’s no secret why his songs dominate the wedding playlists.
In 2015, Stapleton’s distinctive, timeless tone had the power to revive “Tennessee Whiskey” in the public consciousness nearly 35 years after it was originally written by Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove. The Kentuckian’s intoxicating vocals made the song a hit, and Stapleton became a giant in the country music scene. Hearing his voice croon, “You’re as sweet as strawberry wine,” is bound to make any listener shut their eyes in pure bliss, latch on to whatever they hold dear—be it a partner, a best friend, or a bottle of wine—and sway to the oh-so-sweet and romantic melody.
In the country music icon’s fifth album Higher (2023), released Nov. 10, his signature sound rings as true as ever. Anyone looking for a euphoric, even spiritual ride simply has to hit play and let Stapleton’s exceptional voice take the wheel. Vocally, listeners are guaranteed a mesmerizing listen. Lyrically, however, they are in for some disappointment. Stapleton has been known to lack creativity in the songwriting department, and he fails to shake this sticky reputation with the release of Higher. Never the wordsmith, much of Stapleton’s songs feature overdone metaphors and dull imagery.
The album’s lead single, “White Horse,” is an artful blend of blues, rock, and outlaw country that showcases Stapleton’s vocal prowess. The opening lyrics, “This love is getting kinda dangerous / Feels like it’s a loaded gun,” are utterly bone-chilling when coupled with Stapleton’s deep, bluesy voice. If love is a loaded gun, here, Stapleton hits the bull’s eye.
His soulful voice continues to entrance with the titular track “Higher.” As Stapleton praises the transcendent power of love, his voice ranges from barely above a whisper to an unrestrained belt. By striking an impressive balance between resounding depth and angelic cadences, Stapleton transcends listeners higher, higher, and higher, straight to the heavens.
His harmonies with his wife and co-producer Morgane Stapleton on tracks like “Trust” and “It Takes A Woman” are similarly exceptional. When intertwined, the couple’s complementary vocals set a firm foundation for these two slow and sweet-like-honey tunes that love-drunk newlyweds will surely sway to for years to come. With five children and 16 years of marriage between them, the Stapletons’ backstory makes their songs about love and devotion feel that much more profound. Morgane frequently sang backup on Stapleton’s All-American Road Show Tour, and she stays similarly in the background on these tracks, her voice only embellishing the choruses. Still, it’s a welcome addition, and concert-goers will likely have the pleasure of hearing the couple perform together on stage again.
While Higher sets a high bar sonically thanks to the tracklist’s myriad of vocal triumphs, the album fails to distinguish Stapleton from other country artists lyrically. Singers like Zach Bryan and Tyler Childers of the budding folksy-alternative country music genre know how to tell a story with their words, the poetic hum of their lyrics transporting listeners through time and space. Their sincere love ballads and sorrowful hymns are a welcome deviation from the generic, processed, and cheesy bro-country music from artists like Jason Aldean and Blake Shelton, which unfortunately pervade today’s radio stations.
Stapleton’s lukewarm lyrics fall somewhere in between the Bryans/Childers and the Aldeans/Sheltons of the country genre—his words lack the strength in imagery to spin a lively tale, but usually they are not overwhelmingly unpalatable.
“Think I’m In Love With You” (as the title alone likely suggests) is one example of Stapleton’s persistent unoriginality. When Stapleton sings, “You are my life, you are my world / You are the air I’m breathing, girl,” rather than exhaling in satisfied delight, it’s difficult not to sigh. We have all heard something like this before; metaphorizing a love interest as a breath of fresh air is, ironically, anything but. From comparing love to a sunrise in “Higher” to the desperate, clichéd pining penned in “Loving You On My Mind” and “The Day I Die,” the examples of cringe-inducing tropes are endless.
On a positive note, at least Stapleton firmly side-steps the gross female objectification rampant within bro-country music. Despite the lack of nuance, his romantic lyrics appear to stem from a place of genuine respect and admiration for his muse.
Nevertheless, the album’s closing song “Mountains Of My Mind,” does offer a glimmer of hope for Stapleton’s lyricism. Stapleton’s only solo-written track on the album, the song is refreshingly introspective. As the lead guitar gently plucks a simple chord progression, Stapleton’s beautifully sung musings about the anguish of overthinking are given sufficient space to shine through. The lyrics, “There’s an empty table with a well-worn wooden chair / Just waiting for me in the middle of nowhere / Where no one knows me, where no one even cares” and “I think I’ll find a long white line / Curse the world and leave it all behind / I’ve been trying all this time / And still can’t climb the mountains of my mind,” present an authentic vulnerability that better align with the emotive capabilities of Stapleton’s raw vocal talent.
Higher is a solid album, consistent with Stapleton’s well-established reputation in the country music sphere. Yes, his lyrics often err on the side of overly-simplistic, but what Stapleton lacks in lyrical genius he makes up for in the sheer passion and skill with which he sings. What is so groundbreaking about his music is not necessarily what he sings about, but how he sings it.
There’s no denying that Stapleton can sing, and “Mountains Of My Mind” suggests that he has significant songwriting promise as well. For future projects, if Stapleton devotes himself more diligently to nurturing his lyrical craft, his next album has the potential to be something truly legendary.
VOICE’S CHOICES: “White Horse,” “Mountains of My Mind,” “The Fire,” “Trust”