When rock and pop A-listers have needed a world-class country singer to sing on their song over the past few years, they usually call Chris Stapleton. Since his last album, 2020’s Starting Over, the 45 year-old traditionalist has duetted with Taylor Swift and Adele, written songs with Santana, and collaborated with Tom Morello and Pink. But that doesn’t mean he’s no longer a country centrist, having worked with everyone from Carly Pearce to Morgan Wallen to Willie Nelson.
Of all his recent famous collaborators, Adele feels like the most relevant model on Higher, Stapleton’s fifth studio record, and perhaps the finest showcase of the singer’s once-in-a-generation voice to date. Like Adele, Stapleton is an R&B balladeer at heart, and like his British contemporary, he’s found ways, as his career progresses, to move past simple soul-belting and take his voice to new places with each successive album.
There are a few barely perceptible tweaks on the tried-and-true formula Stapleton has perfected with producer Dave Cobb over their near-decade of record-making: Higher is the first album in which Stapleton had a hand in writing every single song, and the record marks the debut co-producer credit for his longtime secret weapon (and wife) Morgane Stapleton.
At times, Stapleton’s latest feels like a more mature, seasoned sequel to his multi-platinum 2015 debut Traveller: 14 songs, many of them redemptive ballads and breezy California country-rock; Stapleton even brought back “Whiskey and You” co-writer Lee Thomas Miller for “The Bottom,” a devastating alcoholic’s lament that once again finding Stapleton in his wheelhouse singing about Jim Beam desperation. Elsewhere, generous adult statements like “The Day I Die” and “Trust” convey a hard-won peace, full of the type of middle-aged wisdom the seeking protagonists on Traveller were so desperately seeking.
If this album has its own “Tennessee Whiskey” moment, it comes on “Higher,” a slow-burning stunner that finds Stapleton’s voice traversing planets and stars, moving from low-register croon to roaring falsetto to shouting growl in the span of four minutes. Or there’s “White Horse,” his first co-write with Semisonic frontman and (you guessed it) Adele co-writer Dan Wilson: Stapleton’s singing at full blast for the entire chorus, reinforcing the urgent turbulence of the relationship he’s singing about.
But what Stapleton is singing about (repentant drinking, lasting love) has never been more important than the way he’s singing. His voice has always been his foremost storytelling device, and that’s never been more clear that it is on Higher, the best evidence yet for the way one man’s voice has become synonymous with the very idea of a musical genre.