At the halfway point of his sublime sophomore album, “From A Room: Volume 1,” Chris Stapleton attempts to rattle the cage of a relationship — in all likelihood, a marriage — long steeped in domestic purgatory. During a sobering tune called “Either Way,” both parties keep up appearances to the outside world but live a wholly separated existence, talking only “when the monthly bills are due.” Then, as the song reaches its chorus, the stark denouement is reached. “You can go, you can stay,” Stapleton sings in that now familiar soul-inscribed country voice. “I won’t love you either way.”
Now, here’s the kicker. Even if another Nashville songwriter could have designed a song of similarly unsentimental torment, they would have weighed it down with strings and other obvious anthemic devices to make sure it was a weeper of cinematic proportions. What Stapleton and producer Dave Cobb do is let the song essentially sing itself. All you hear is Stapleton’s singing, which packs the potency of a cyclone, and a lone acoustic guitar. In short, the song is left to bleed before your ears with raw, uncompromising urgency.
“Either Way” also is a crossroads for “From A Room: Volume 1.” It’s a line of demarcation separating music of unvarnished country tradition from sounds that soar into heavier soul and R&B terrain, territory that the Lexington-born, Paintsville-raised artist is as versed in as the Nashville lexicon that earned him a glowing reputation as a songwriter and, more recently, performer.
The country material is pretty comprehensive in tone and thematic intent. The opener, “Broken Halos,” turns country outlaw references inside out to become a coarse affirmation that preaches patience. “Don’t go looking for the reasons, don’t go asking Jesus why,” Stapleton sings in a mood as contemplative as it is pleading. “We’re not meant to know the answers; they belong to the by and by.”
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A cover of the 1982 Willie Nelson hit “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning” (the album’s only non-original tune) blows in like a desert wind, arid but comforting, before “Up to No Good Livin’” strikes up a forlorn waltz as it unravels the saga of a reveler (“People call me the Picasso of painting the town”) and his hard-won redemption.
But the latter half of “From A Room, Volume 1” turns the lights way down. “I Was Wrong” is all after-hours blues — dangerous, electric and refreshingly ragged — while “Without Your Love” settles into deeper, darker and more quietly desperate terrain. After a slight reprieve for the hapless re-creation of “Them Stems” the record reaches rock bottom with the closing “Death Row,” a prisoner’s unapologetic self-eulogy that seeks understanding more than forgiveness against a slow, doomsday groove. Don’t wait for this one on country radio.
Released two years to the day from when the Grammy-winning debut album “Traveler” hit stores to slowly but very surely introduce Stapleton to the masses, ‘From A Room: Volume 1” reflects an unforced assuredness as it travels two very different paths. One winds around the country traditions at the heart of Stapleton’s songwriting. The other, which uses that earthshaking voice, takes him decidedly away from them. It also leaves you hanging, like any good story will, for where such a journey will take him once “Volume 2” rolls our way later this year.