Ever since Traveler turned him into a champion of country traditionalism, Chris Stapleton has refused to make anything like a grand statement. Instead, his two From A Room volumes have arrived without overarching themes or concepts; each one is simply a collection of sturdy songs, performed with warmth and passion. But don’t knock these albums for their humbleness. Like its predecessor, Volume 2 is marked by casual virtuosity, with Stapleton pulling together a range of moods and stylistic tropes while maintaining an organic, unified sound. You can credit the album’s cohesion to producer Dave Cobb, who keeps things lean and spare without ever veering into austerity.
Within that framework, Stapleton slyly asserts just how much he’s capable of. He could have made an entire album that cashed in on the success of “Tennessee Whiskey,” the slow-burning ballad that was instrumental to Traveler’s success. He certainly remains compelling when he keeps things slow and hushed, like on the pained ballad “Nobody’s Lonely Tonight,” but he sounds just as comfortable howling over prickly blues-rock on “Hard Livin’” or showcasing his storytelling abilities on “Scarecrow in the Garden,” songs that subtly expand his aesthetic without leaving country behind.
In fact, both From A Room installments prove that Stapleton’s concept of country, while classicist, is by no means limited; every song here takes hold of a familiar theme or trope, and every one sounds totally different from the last. Album opener “Millionaire” is all about how love matters more than money, hardly a foreign theme to country musicians; it’s laidback and romantic, but it also becomes deeper and richer when it’s followed by “Hard Livin’,” a raucous outlaw’s anthem that’s similarly rooted in tradition, but also inhabits an entirely different set of emotions. They play like flip sides of a coin—the former a statement of contentment, the latter an admission of mistakes.
Stapleton is committed to showing the different sounds and styles contained under the classicist-country umbrella—and in doing so, he packs the album with modest surprises and simple pleasures. “Scarecrow in the Garden” is a slice of Appalachia that doesn’t have precedent on any Stapleton album, its gothic imagery and narrative drive both new wrinkles in his well-worn sound. Such small variations fill the album, from the finger-picked folk of “A Simple Song” to the thick, woozy Southern soul of “Friendship.”
If anything, the album flows together even better than Volume 1, where the disparity between light-heartedness and heavier themes was an occasional distraction. But really, it’s best to consider the two albums as part of the same story—an idiosyncratic travelogue through country traditions, with a guide who’s unfailing in keeping things compelling.