Album Review — Eric Church’s ‘Desperate Man’

(Note: This was originally published in Oct. 2018 on Fusion Country, which is now closed. It is being reposted here for reader availability. Plus I really loved talking about this album, which is fantastic and one of the best released in 2018.)

Eric Church has always did it his way. It’s a cliché thing to say in the music industry. So many artists love to say it in press releases and interviews. But very few are being genuine. It’s just another marketing phrase. When it comes to Church, he’s one of the few being sincere. Not only has he done it his way, but his sound has evolved and changed with his life along the way. Each album shows more growth in his music and artistry. On Mr. Misunderstood, I thought Church delivered his best album yet. I didn’t think he could top himself on Desperate Man, but he does. Church delivers more on Desperate Man than I could have imagined.

Church delivers a real statement with opening song “The Snake.” It’s a stripped-down, appropriately sinister sounding song about a Copperhead and a rattlesnake. I’m not sure how others interpret it, but for me it’s a scathing commentary on American politics regarding the two major political parties. It tells of how each work together to continue eating the mice (who represent the people) and keep their power, each out for themselves and not the people they represent. “And the whole world’s burning down,” as Church wisely sings.

Church then does a complete 180 with the fun and upbeat “Hangin’ Around.” It’s probably the most danceable song Church has ever released, as it’s impossible to not want to move your head and feet along with the beat. The bass, drums, clapping and electric guitars chug along in unison, creating an infectiously funky sound. “Heart Like A Wheel” is a slice of bluesy country goodness that puts the guitars front and center. It’s about a love that can’t be stopped and keeps rolling on. Church delivers the lyrics with a real passion that make them really resonate over the listener.

“Some Of It” is the perfect marriage of Church’s past and present styles. The lyrics of the song are classic Church, with his deftly simple message about finding wisdom in life. It pairs up well with the new rich, heavily textured sound of Church. To me it’s a no-brainer, future single. The next song “Monsters” sounds like a single too. For many I imagine this is the center-piece of the album and I don’t blame them. The song’s writers Church and Jeff Hyde cleverly weave together a story of the monsters in life. When you’re a kid, they’re under the bed and you kill them with a flashlight. When you’re an adult, you realize they’re all around you and even in your head. In the case of Church, you pray them away. Whether you’re young or old, we all have our demons and we all have our way of dealing with them. You know you’re hearing a special song when we can all relate to it, as it unites us through its message.

Church fondly looks back on his upbringing and life on “Hippie Radio.” Specifically it was the sounds of rock radio that were always there through many milestones, marking each moment in his mind. It’s a song that celebrates the meaning of music and the influence it has on us. It’s a great song that’s probably the least memorable on the album, but that’s a testament to the sheer amount of quality throughout this record. “Higher Wire” shows a completely different side to Church. It’s a bare, soulful tune that Church sings almost entirely in falsetto. Like many I didn’t know what to think of it at first. It reminds me a lot of when I first heard “Like a Wrecking Ball,” which I originally didn’t like. But just like that song, “Higher Wire” grows stronger on you with each listen. My main takeaway: It’s so much damn fun to sing along to the chorus!

I covered the album’s title track when it first released and I still stand by what I said. It’s a great song and it’s appropriate it’s the title track because it perfectly captures the spirit and sound you hear throughout the album (not to mention Ray Wylie Hubbard gets some shine with a co-write). “Solid” immediately gives you a ’70s vibe thanks to the undeniable presence of the electric guitars. Not a surprise, considering Church has cited many influences from the era. Church sings about the many things in his life that keeps him grounded and allows him to have a solid foundation in life. By the end he takes it back to where he grew up and the upbringing by his parents, the appealing emotional closer that ties it all together.

The shimmery feeling “Jukebox And A Bar” sees Church once again fuse his classic lyrical style with his new production style. The theme is a staple of country music, but it’s Church’s lyrical approach that makes this song so good. I particularly enjoy the line, “We got pinpoint GPS, all you need is an address/But her love is the one thing I can’t find.” I enjoy it because despite all of the technology we have and all of the problems it can solve, ironically it still can’t heal a broken heart like the camaraderie of a bar. Plus the use of words like “phosphorescent” and “incandescent” have never been used better in a country song.

The album closes out with “Drowning Man,” taking the album back to where it began with the headache of politics. Church is the voice of many, as he doesn’t want to think about the problems of the world and would rather drown in whiskey. He doesn’t want to hear about your “beach” or “mountains” either, which can be interpreted as the endless chatter from each side on social media. The drowning is a sea of words. “Save your breath, I don’t want to hear about it” are the final words from Church, as he carefully expresses the exasperation of many.

Desperate Man is a fantastic album. Church’s songwriting has never been better and the production choices made by him and Jay Joyce blow me away. Just like Kacey Musgraves with Golden Hour, Eric Church shows us just how innovative and exciting country music can be when you throw out the “rules” and just create your sound. It’s not about giving people what they want, but giving them what they didn’t know they needed until they heard it. Eric Church did it his way on Desperate Man and his way is excellent.

Grade: 10/10

Country Perspective’s 2016 Male Artist of the Year – Eric Church

You know when it comes to mainstream artists, they haven’t fared too well with my best of year-end awards. Other than Chris Stapleton last year no other mainstream artist has won. Of course not even Stapleton feels like he’s “mainstream” because when you think of mainstream you think of someone who’s been on Music Row and country radio for years. Usually though these type of artists don’t deliver best of worthy music because they’re content just putting out mediocre material that easily has mass appeal. But then one day you finally get someone on the “inside” who isn’t just content with where they’re at and strive to deliver something more. It’s when that artist starts performing to their highest potential and start putting out the best music of their career. It’s the kind of artist all genres need in the mainstream. And in country music this year there was one artist who exemplified this well. So it gives me great pleasure to announce that Country Perspective’s 2016 Male Artist of the Year is Eric Church.

Eric Church Mr. Misunderstood

If you told me a few years ago that I would name Eric Church to one of my best of year-end awards, I would have called you crazy. I was one of the most critical voices of Church, from his album The Outsiders to his single choices to the interviews he gave. Even while delivering all of this criticism of him and his music, I knew deep down he could do better and if he chose to do better he could be one of the best. That’s not to say he hasn’t always tried his best. He always has, but he had yet to find his voice/niche I thought. You would get glimpses of it in songs like “Springsteen” and “Cold One,” but never for an entire album. Well finally in November 2015 we got the album I had been waiting for from Church: Mr. Misunderstood.

It’s the shortest and least hyped album of his career. The whole release was a complete surprise. The bigger surprise though was what lied in the album. Gone was the arrogance, bluster and bombast that had plagued him on his last album. Instead we got humility, grace and honesty from the very first song, “Mr. Misunderstood.” In the song Church reaches out to the misunderstood kid, who sits in the back of the class and gets mocked for his music tastes. That’s because Church says he was that kid at one point. He was shy and backward, listening to the likes of Ray Wylie Hubbard and Jeff Tweedy while his friends got “their rocks off on Top 40 radio.” It’s essentially Church admitting who he really is and what he’s really about, while essentially writing a love letter to music. He says it’s okay to be different and follow the beat of your own drum, damn what others think and that’s something he’s always been about, even if it got muddled along the way.

It lays the groundwork for the rest of the album where he just delivers great song after great song exploring a variety of topics and eventually at the end coming to grips of how much he’s grown up to where he is now with a wife and kids. This self-admitted growth showed to me that we’re getting a different Eric Church now. One who is more focused on the art of the music and less about the hype and awards gained from it. Someone who after years of experience realizes that years from now people will remember you based on what you gave. I said at the end of last year that Church was poised to make a great impact in 2016 if he chose to do so. I said he could bring the quality that the mainstream so desperately needs, especially on the airwaves. He could be the leader and voice this genre has needed for year. And that’s exactly what he did this year.

He’s released two of the best songs off Mr. Misunderstood as singles, “Record Year” and “Kill A Word.” The former is one of the best heartbreak songs I’ve heard in the past couple years, combining sobering heartbreak and the resurgent popularity of vinyl. In it the man heals his broken heart going through his vinyl collection, listening to hours and hours of music to put himself back together. He’s had a “record year” and he’s now come out better, finding great music and feeling better about life. Church also pays tribute to some excellent music in the song such as Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. The latter song brings a message the world so desperately needed this year. It’s a message of fighting back against bullying, hoping to erase the word hate. Not to mention Church gives a platform for the talented Americana artist Rhiannon Giddens to get more notice and recognition. He even sent a special edit to radio with Giddens getting more lines to sing to ensure it says featuring Giddens on the charts.

Church also gave many candid interviews this year, being a voice that the genre has needed. For example in an interview with Rolling Stone, Church was asked about the best part of success and this was his response:

The freedom to do what I want musically. The mistake a lot of people make is the more success they have, the safer they play it. That’s wrong: I think the more success you have, the more dangerous you should play it.

Church most resonating quote though comes from his interview with The Vulture. When asked about being more matured compared to his peers and the youth movement on country radio:

You have to be resolved to the fact that you’re not always gonna be hot. If you’re making music that is truly representative of growth and maturity and of your heart, you’re not gonna continue to maintain the heat throughout that process. That’s okay to me. I’ve always looked at the long game. It wasn’t just something that we made a decision in the moment because we needed to sell another 100,000 albums or a ticket for a tour. When you start making those decisions, you end up regretting ’em. I see the guys now; there’s a lot of them that are my age but try to act like they’re 25.

The problem there is you’re holding on so tight. My question would be, “To what?” To me, it’s just not commitment to the art. When you’re putting an album out there for everyone to compare against all the others, I can’t imagine ever having to make a decision and go, “Gosh, I need to do this in order to have success right now, but I know I’m gonna regret this in a year or two.”

It’s quotes like these that show all up and coming artists out there that you should follow your heart and make the music you want. Despite all of his success, Church knows this is the most important thing for him and his career. It’s an example to his peers that they don’t need to be a cog in the machine to get where they want in life. You can have it all doing it your way. Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton demonstrated this the last few years and now Eric Church has done it this year. Because at the end of the day it’s about what resonates with the fans, who Church says should always come first. To me that’s a lesson all artists should learn and that is also why Eric Church is Country Perspective’s 2016 Male Artist of the Year.

Album Review – Eric Church’s ‘Mr. Misunderstood’ is His Best Work Yet

Eric Church Mr. Misunderstood

What a surprise! Eric Church caught the entire world off guard when he released his brand new album Mr. Misunderstood in the midst of the 2015 CMA Awards. The first signs of it didn’t appear until members of Church’s fan club received it in the mail days before it was available to the public. Then everyone listened to it and I think I can speak for most people when I say we once again said, “What a surprise!” I never reviewed Church’s previous album The Outsiders here on Country Perspective, but anyone who has followed this site for a while has known my stance on it. I wasn’t fond of it all and found it to be highly overrated and over-produced. I found it to be a sonic mess with no cohesive theme or direction while also lacking a country sound for the most part. I was definitely one of the most negative about it amongst critics. I like to think Church listened to this feedback because every problem I had with The Outsiders is non-existent on Mr. Misunderstood. This album is a complete 180 and features what I consider the deepest and most inspirational music of Church’s entire career.

The album’s title track and lead single kicks this album off. It’s an appropriate opener, as it essentially lays out what this album is all about and that’s Eric Church and his love of music. Church sings about how he grew up as “Mr. Misunderstood,” the kid in the back of the class who didn’t fit in with his friends who “got their rocks off” on top 40 radio. Instead he was the kid who listened to his dad’s vinyl and the likes of Elvis Costello, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Jeff Tweedy (a really cool shout out to three talented artists who have clearly influenced him). It’s an acoustic driven track influenced by southern and heartland rock. There were many things I found relatable about this song and I think many other listeners feel the same when they hear it. This is Eric Church at his best, something I find myself saying a lot as I listened to this album.

The gospel-influenced “Mistress Named Music” follows. Just like “Mr. Misunderstood,” Church sings of his love of music and how it’s been a part of his life ever since he was a kid listening to the organ player in church. The instrumentation on this song is really well done, perfectly meshing country, rock and gospel to create a compelling and interesting listen. It should be noted Church wrote both of these first two songs of the album with Casey Beathard, a fellow country artist and somewhat known songwriter. The upbeat and acoustic-driven “Chattanooga Lucy” is the closet thing to a party song on this album, although I wouldn’t classify it as such. It is a very fun song to listen to and move your feet along with. There’s not a lot of depth on this song, but that’s not a problem considering most of this album has a lot of depth and takes on a more serious tone. So this is a nice breakup and something to play when you’re looking for some mindless music to put on in the background. “Mixed Drinks About Feelings” is a heartbreak song penned solely by Church himself. The man in the song is trying to drink his sorrows away after his woman left him and it’s not helping that much. Church duets on the song with blues artist Susan Tedeschi and their voices go together greatly. Their voices and instrumentation create the perfect mood in the song and it’s arguably the one of the best heartbreak songs Church has released.

There are many great songs throughout this album. But one of the standouts amongst them and most buzzed about I’ve heard so far is “Knives of New Orleans.” The song is about a criminal on the run trying to escape his sins and looking for his getaway key. It’s one of those songs you have to hear for yourself to truly appreciate and once you do you know it just fits Church perfectly. He wrote the song with the brilliant Travis Meadows and Jeremy Spillman and I would have loved to be in the room when they finished penning this song because I can only imagine the reaction. One of the more under-looked songs on the album, “Round Here Buzz,” is next. It’s about a man sitting on the hood of his car drinking, as he thinks about the girl who just left him. He’s perfectly content to just sit there and take in everything around him, as his heart heals. Living in a small town is part of the theme of this song too and unlike in The Outsiders, Church avoids being cheesy or unimaginative and instead does a great job describing it in an authentic way. It’s a really solid song that takes a few listens to really grasp, but once you do you definitely appreciate it much more.

One of my personal favorites on Mr. Misunderstood is “Kill A Word.” It’s about getting rid of negative words and really negativity in general, as Church says words are something that can’t be unheard or unsaid. The songwriting is really sharp, clever and catchy, while also avoiding the pitfall of getting too pandering (hello “We Shall Be Free). But really what takes this song to another level for me is the vocal performances delivered by Church and guest performers Andrea Davidson and Americana artist Rhiannon Giddens. I particularly want to highlight Giddens, who is an amazing artist and delivered the performance of the night at this year’s Americana Awards. I have an immense amount of respect for Church including her on such a powerful song. “Holdin’ My Own” is Church’s ode to his family. Another one penned solely by himself, Church is proud of how he’s been able to survive the early years of his life and how’s he now able to hold his arms around his wife and two boys and do what he loves for a living. You can tell how close and sentimental this song is to Church and his heart shows more on this song than any other on the album. This is a song straight from the heart and for the heart.

While I pretty much love this entire album, the best song on Mr. Misunderstood is “Record Year.” In fact I’ll go so far to say this may be the best song Eric Church has released in his entire career. “Record Year” is about a man who has just broken up with his girlfriend and turns to his vinyl collection to heal his heart. While he plays these records he slowly heals and not only gets over his heartbreak, but also rediscovers himself and some great music along the way. More than anything it’s a song about finding your way in life when things are at your darkest. When Church releases this as a single (it has to be a single), I predict it will be the biggest hit of his career and will go down as one of his signature songs. This is a special song that hits a home run in every department.

Mr. Misunderstood comes to a close with “Three Year Old.” Church is once again inspired by his family, particularly his three-year-old son Boone, on this song. He sings about all of the lessons he has learned from him and how it puts into context how simple life is through the eyes of a child. It reminds you as an adult how we can over complicate stuff and how we need to step back to realize this. It should also be mentioned his son nicknamed the guitar that Church wrote this album with, “Butter Bean.” So it goes back to where this album all began. Not to mention this album started off with Church relating back to his younger days and ends with him as an adult watching his own child grow up before his very eyes.

Mr. Misunderstood is hands-down the best album Eric Church has released in his career. While The Outsiders felt like a contrived, egotistical vanity project, Mr. Misunderstood is Church’s love letter to music. He went back to his roots while also incorporating a sense of freshness that had been needed in his music. It’s no secret that Church is not strictly a country artist and loves to dabble in other genres too. This has hurt him a lot in past albums, but on this one he finds the perfect balance. He incorporates influences from blues, soul, southern rock, heartland rock, folk, gospel and funk in a way that maintains the integrity of the music while also making something new and creative. The songwriting is sharp, well-written and varied in theme and the writers Church brought in alongside him fit well. While I wouldn’t call this an album of the year contender, it is definitely one of the top 30 albums I’ve heard in country this year. It’s an absolute must-listen. Mr. Misunderstood has made me believe in Eric Church and his music once again.

Grade: 9/10