A lump forms in the back of your throat at the beginning of Chris Stapleton’s exquisite fourth album, and basically hovers there until the final strum. It isn’t that there are bombshell moments about his afflictions or personal tragedies; he’s just singing about the small ways life catches him by surprise. But it’s the way he does it—sentimental and observant, like a misty-eyed gentle giant—that makes even his simplest songs overwhelmingly emotional to listen to. By making everyday stories feel weighty and profound—the temptation of a highway, the sting of getting older, the yearning for a better life—he teases tangled, complex emotions right up to the surface. Here, guilt, wonder, disappointment, and hope feel as clear as joy and pain.
Starting Over traces a period of intense self-reflection. After a string of hugely successful albums and high-profile collaborations (Justin Timberlake, John Mayer), Stapleton had reached a level of fame that he wasn’t entirely comfortable with. He moved his family out of Nashville and tried to mix things up, briefly trading RCA Studio A for Muscle Shoals. In the end, the LP was recorded in both places, with added support from Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. They helped him assemble hard-rocking stompers like “Arkansas,” about road-tripping through the Ozarks, and “Watch You Burn,” a pointed song about the 2017 mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas. Among the album's three covers are “Old Friends” and “Worry B Gone” by Guy Clark and John Fogerty’s “Joy of My Life.”
But Stapleton just hits different when he’s singing Stapleton. Maybe it’s his devastatingly specific lyrics, recalling, in “Maggie’s Song,” how the family dog placed her head on his hands before passing away (there’s that lump). Or perhaps it’s the way he makes sweeping observations about ineffable things like love and America and still manages to strike a nerve. “I’m 40 years old and it looks like the end of the rainbow/Ain’t no pot of gold,” he sings on “When I’m With You,” a slow-burning song to his wife and singing partner Morgane Stapleton. The album’s final number, a graceful farewell to Nashville, captures the way that cities inevitably let you down. “You build me up, you set me free/You tore down my memories,” he sings with the heartache of someone leaving a first love. “You’re not who you used to be/So long, Nashville, Tennessee.”