Song Review: Chris Stapleton, “Starting Over”

Chris Stapleton claims he’s “Starting Over,” but this sounds like the same thing he’s always done.

If you had told me a few years ago that I’d be referring to a country artist as Thanos, I probably would have guessed that it would be Chris Stapleton rather than Luke Combs. However, after “Millionaire” peaked at #2 on Billboard’s airplay chart last March, Stapleton disappeared from the radio entirely, and he stayed away for so long that I wrote a post back in January wondering what the heck had happened. Now, however, the hiatus is over: Stapleton has emerged from his hiding place with a new single “Starting Over,” the leadoff single and title track for an upcoming project coming this November. The title is a bit misleading, however: This is the same sort of uninteresting material that Stapleton had been pushing before his radio vacation, and while it grabs your attention, it struggles to keep it.

There isn’t a whole lot to the production here: The song is mostly Stapleton singing over a bright, jangling acoustic guitar, with a barely-noticeable Hammond B3 organ providing quiet atmospheric chords and a light-touch snare drum keeping time in the back. (The arrangement is so sparse that even on my bass-light audio setup, the bass guitar is not only noticeable, but it might be the liveliest instrument here outside of the acoustic lead.) However, the mix winds up feeling surprisingly monotonous and one-note: It grabs you with its optimistic, forward-looking vibe, but its simple chord structure, unwavering strum pattern (even on the supposed ‘solo’), and lack of instrument diversity causes the sound wear out its welcome quickly, and by the second verse the listener is already waiting for the next song to start playing. Overall, the mix is bright but boring, and it really could have used some extra flourishes (more instruments? An actual solo?) to spice things up and keep listeners engaged.

Chris Stapleton’s calling card is his distinct vocal and unrivaled vocal power, but only the former shows up on “Starting Over.” The decision to rein him in is understandable (the song has an easygoing vibe that a forceful delivery just wouldn’t fit), but it still lessens the song’s impact on the listener and makes it a little too easy to ignore. Stapleton’s trademark charisma is still there, and he certainly seems believable in the role of a narrator craving a escape from routine (and after I called him out for sounding so melancholy on “Millionaire,” he actually sounds upbeat this time around), but he doesn’t sell the story well enough to convince the listener to care about it.  While the performance isn’t on the level of ‘it would sound the same no matter who was singing it,’ it’s still disappointing that a vocalist of Stapleton’s caliber would give us something this lukewarm and forgettable.

The lyrics here have the narrator pitching the idea of leaving town and “starting over” to their partner, which is a fairly well-explored topic in the genre (although less so lately). The narrator’s argument, unfortunately, is not a good one: They spend a lot of time talking about how hard such a journey would be (“There’s rivers to cross and hills to climb/Some days we might fall apart/And some nights might feel cold and dark”), but don’t talk about the payoff at all, instead offering vague, generic platitudes (“But nobody wins afraid of losing/and the hard roads are the ones worth choosing”), leaving the listener to fill the gap with their own motivations for moving. On top of that, the narrator can be inexplicably contradictory at times: They say “I’ve had all of this town I can stand,” but then proclaim “Wherever we are is where I wanna be,” so why isn’t “right here” good enough? (Frankly, if I was the partner the narrator was pitching this idea to, I’d tell them to go sober up and stop all this crazy talk.) Tack on a hook that feels very tacked-on (it’s just thrown in at the end of the chorus for a rhyme), and I’m left wondering if this was really the best Stapleton and his co-writer could put together.

“Starting Over” is a perfect example of radio filler: The song just seems to exist, and it provides no reason for the audience to care that it’s there. The production is upbeat but uninspired, the writing is directionless and unconvincing, and the return of Chris Stapleton isn’t enough to keep the audience engaged for the entire track. A comeback song needs a bit more something (a punchy sound, some strong emotion, etc.) to grab peoples’ attention, and this track is a bit too bland to do the job (“Second One To Know” would have been a better choice, even though it’s been out for a while). Stapleton passed on what looked like a golden opportunity to dominate the country music conversation last year, and this song won’t be enough to earn him a second chance.

Rating: 5/10. Don’t go out of your way for this one.