Review Summary: That's the difference.
Welcome back to GreenMilkCrate's first annual GRAMMY ALBUM OF THE YEAR ROASTACULAR!
I’m taking the next few weeks to review the Grammy Album of the Year nominations. Last week I reviewed “Beauty Behind the Madness” by the Weeknd, which you can find the link to at the end of the review, and the rest when they get written. All in all, a good album, but the character the Weeknd portrayed on that album was pathetic and a wuss and I felt no sympathy for him. We’re not roasting him this week, today, I’m roasting the debut album by Chris Stapleton, titled “Traveller.”
Now, the only positive exposure I’ve had to country music in my life was “At Folsom Prison” by Johnny Cash (one of the best country records of all time and one of my personal favorites), Shania Twain Taylor Swift, and two of those three were barely country music, more country-tinged pop, and T Swift is a full-blown pop superstar now, so she doesn’t even count, and I have no idea what Shania does anymore. All other country music that I heard throughout middle and high school I had immediately written off as being about farming, drinking PBR, and having sex on big green tractors. And granted, they were. Nobody gave two spits of chew about country music from 2008 to 2014, it seems, at least in the mainstream. Apparently I’ve been missing out on greats like the Zac Brown Band, which I really need to get into. The best impression of late 00’s/early ‘10s country was “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line: a boring, douchey, uninspired, and pandering excuse of a song, and then the remix featuring Nelly put the nail in my perceptions of country.But then when I saw that I’d be reviewing a country album for the Roastacular, I had to slough off the negative ideas of country music I had built up because, hey, I’ve never really listened to any current country music seriously. And what do I think of “Traveller"” One of the most solid country albums of the year.
And what exactly do I mean by “solid"” Well, I’m glad you asked.
You can tell that this a country album built by country veterans made for country veterans, with just enough of a pop and rock sensibility to hook listeners outside of country. After all, Mr. Stapleton has been writing songs for popular artists since the turn of the century, including Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, and even Adele, and those songwriting and production chops show up all over the album. The album is near perfectly produced, every instrument has its place and is mixed to be punchy and expressive, especially in the songs with more sparse instrumentation, like “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” and “Whiskey and You,” which both contain some emotive plucked acoustic guitars, which on the latter track expertly runs the gamut between being mournful and empty, and then brings out some passion and anger in those strums in the chorus, backing up Chris’s lyrics. Same goes for “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore.” The best part of that song for me is the harmonica, emulating the sorrowful cries of a father who lost his faith, matching the lyrical theme of the song. If an artist can do that, they will win me hook line and sinker.
But as “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” ends, we find out that Chris’s father didn’t actually lose his faith at all. The song setup, a character portrait with a clever, (or in this case sad twist), is a tried and true country song standard, and this track has the makings of a lyrical home run, but then the twist comes and you begin to see the cracks in Mr. Stapleton’s lyricism. The perspectives of many songs are not as wide as they should be, and that is the reason many of the songs on “Traveller” fail to live up to expectations. “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” fails to give us a good or clever punchline. Now not in a comical sense, but a payoff to the story. “Nobody to Blame” is also a prime example of this shortcoming. The song tells the story of Chris’s wife breaking all of his stuff (fishing rods, guns, his John Deere. Typical country fare.) but we never find out what Chris did to incite this rampage from his wife. While lyrically the song is unsatisfying, the smooth, rollicking guitar solos and harmonica save the song and make it an ultimately satisfying song.
While many cuts near the middle/end of the tracklisting come up short, the first several songs are hit after hit after hit. “Traveller”, “Fire Away”, “Tennessee Whiskey” (Another nice thing I can’t make fun of this album for is that Chris only seems to drink whiskey, like a classy Southern gentleman, [instead of, say, PBR] but one who is self-aware enough to realize the impact alcohol and drugs [“Might As Well Get Stoned”] and even the music industry [“The Devil Named Music”, one of the strongest songs on the album if you can get past its slow pace] itself has had on his relationships, something that is a pretty well-worn subject in country music, but Chris’s take on it is a great song nonetheless.”Parachute” is probably the best song on the first half of the album, with its Southern rock vibe, killer, impassioned vocal delivery from Chris, and that guitar line is so sticky sweet, but more like a piece of candy, and not a spilled glass of whiskey the next morning. A contender for best song on the album.
The back half of the album is a little more sparse on strong tracks and heavy on filler. “Was It 26” and “When the Stars Come Out” are forgettable, but the latter does have a nice sentiment of wanting change and having that youthful “hope and a tank of gas.” But the chorus of the song is bland, and I can’t tell you one thing about “Was it 26” no matter how many times I hear it. Luckily the last three songs are very strong, “Outlaw State of Mind” and “Sometimes I Cry” work especially well together, giving us two sides of the country star persona. One being about the hard life of travel and work and drinkin’ an’ fightin’ to survive on the road, while the closer shows Chris baring his soul, saying that, plainly, sometimes he cries, when there’s nothing to do at all.
I was impressed with “Traveller.” If it did anything well, it gave me hope for country music when I thought it was all pandering to beer-swilling, red-blooded, ‘MERICANS and Florida Georgia *holds back vomit* Line. And Chris Stapleton definitely accomplished that goal. Is it perfect" No. There is some filler, some songs don’t hit the mark, and the cohesion of the album wavers when these weak songs get put next to these great contemporary country hits. Maybe now I can truly say I listen to everything. Country included.
Best Songs: “Parachute”, “Outlaw State of Mind”, “Whiskey and You”
Worst Song: “Was it 26”
Beauty Behind the Madness: http://www.sputnikmusic.com/review/69626/The-Weeknd-Beauty-Behind-the-Madness/
Sound and Color: http://www.sputnikmusic.com/review/69738/Alabama-Shakes-Sound--Color/
To Pimp a Butterfly: