You can’t stop a voice like Chris Stapleton’s. You can’t even contain it. All you can do is get out of its way.
Stapleton’s solo debut album Traveller hit country music like a freight train in 2015, selling almost two million copies over its lifetime, receiving almost universal critical acclaim, and winning Stapleton a boatload of awards, including a pair of Grammy Awards. Despite this success, however, country radio has been lukewarm on Stapleton’s work, with Traveller‘s official singles “Nobody To Blame” and “Parachute” only reaching #10 and #17 respectively on the Billboard airplay charts. (Part of this is the fault of Stapleton’s record label Mercury Nashville, which has a bizarre habit of having him give lauded performances of certain songs on award shows, and then releasing completely different songs as radio singles.) “Either Way” is the leadoff single for Stapleton’s second album From A Room: Volume 1, and Stapleton’s awesome talents are on full display, even if the song winds up being a slight step backwards from his Traveller work.
The producers (Stapleton and Dave Cobb) apparently took this post’s opening statement to heart: There is nothing between Stapleton and his audience aside from an acoustic guitar providing a melody. The guitar is muted and sets a suitably-serious mood for the song, but it’s caught in a bit of a Catch-22: It’s completely overshadowed whenever Stapleton is singing, but the moments where Stapleton is silent and the guitar is just playing the same riff over and over feel empty and unnecessary, and the short solo it offers on the bridge is underwhelming. The track also suffers from a major volume balance issue (which is probably unavoidable given Stapleton’s incredible range), forcing you to turn the song way up loud to hear him and the guitar on the verses, and then crank it way back down when he unloads on the chorus. It’s not a huge problem, but it makes the song a real pain to try to listen to.
With such sparse production, the pressure is put on Stapleton to deliver a stellar performance, and for the most part he does just that. Stapleton is the strongest vocalist in country music today (and perhaps the strongest in a long while), and when he brings the full power of his voice to bear (as he does several times on the chorus here), it’ll make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Unfortunately, the verses here keep Stapleton locked into the lower, quieter range of his voice, and while he’s more than capable of operating at that range, the volume balance issue mentioned earlier means you’re forever straining to hear and understand him. In total, however, Stapleton’s vocal are strong enough to do the heavy lifting for the track, drawing listeners in and compelling them to stay.
Thematically, the song describes the plight of a couple trapped in a loveless relationship, going through the motions and putting on airs even though the couple’s feelings for each other are dead and buried. A song like this is more about believability than anything else, and Stapleton does an excellent job communicating the narrator’s frustration with the current situation and his resignation that no matter what happens, things are going to end badly. The writing here is pretty poignant, with its images of the couple sleeping in separate rooms and only coming together to pay the bills, and the combination of singer and words move the listener to feel for and empathize with the narrator’s point of view. It’s a nice story, even if you’re forever fiddling with the volume button on your radio to hear it.
Overall, “Either Way” reminds me a lot of Eric Church’s “Round Here Buzz,” as both are well-written songs that are held back by some frustrating production problems. While I personally prefer Stapleton’s hard-charging “Parachute” to this track (and I unfortunately don’t see country radio getting behind this at all), a voice like his can cover a lot of flaws in a song, and when you just step back and let the man do his thing, you’ll probably be happy with what you hear.
Rating: 6/10. It’s certainly worth trying on for size. If you like it, I’d encourage you to explore Stapleton’s Traveller album as well.