Eric Church has been building a reputation as one of country music’s most original and unique artists since he released his debut album, Sinners Like Me, in 2006. Since then he’s released a further four studio albums and six live recordings, as well as building an army of loyal and passionate fans through his unique approach to touring – most recently his 61 Days In Church tour, which saw him perform two back-to-back sets on each date and spawned four live records. Now he’s back with his sixth LP, Desperate Man, the follow-up to 2015’s surprise release Mr. Misunderstood.
The record kicks off with The Snake, a tale of two serpents scheming together to turn on the ‘sheep’, which Church has claimed is about the main US political parties. Its long intro features the noise of a tape being turned on (and the background noise of said tape), as well as sounds like footsteps, which give the song an organic, experimental feel. Church’s spoken-word delivery on the verses and sharp, gravelly yells on the chorus, along with the chanted background vocals, pulsing drums and twangy guitar, add to the sense of eeriness, and it all makes for a powerful opening that’s very different from anything Church has done before.
Throughout the album there’s a strong 70s influence, particularly on songs such as the punchy, driving Hanging Around, the stripped-back Higher Wire (featuring the fantastic line ‘I should run from you like a vampire does from daylight’) and the title track, which put me in mind of the Rolling Stones’ classic Sympathy For The Devil with its defiant, singalong chorus and powerful belt from Church. I also loved the bluesy groove on songs like the shimmery, sultry Heart Like A Wheel and the lonesome, pulsing yet soulful Solid with its biting lyrics, both of which highlight the growl and depth in Church’s voice to perfection.
For me three of the standout tracks come in the middle of the record. Some Of It is a mature, midtempo tune which finds its narrator telling his life story. It shows off the rich and full tones in his voice as well as his skill as a guitar player, but what grabs you is the conviction – you really believe he’s been through all this and it makes for an incredibly impassioned, moving track. Meanwhile, Hippie Radio is a laid-back ode to growing up which features some great storytelling and wordplay, as well as plenty of warmth and humour. Church is increasingly strong when writing and singing about his family, and the song makes a nice change of pace from the rest of the album.
However, the song I keep returning to is the acoustic guitar-led Monsters. The track opens with a ringing a capella vocal, but what I love about it is how it highlights Church’s skill as a songwriter. Initially it begins as a song about a young boy defending himself from monsters under his bed before growing up to realise that’s not where they live. It’s packed full of lovely details, such as the ‘3.7 mag light’ young Church steals from his dad’s workshop, as well as some wonderful turns of phrase that really bring the story to life, an emotional last verse as the track comes full circle, and a great sense of honesty. On some level it feels like an evolution of Kill A Word from Mr. Misunderstood – instead of attacking negative emotions, Church has moved on to defending himself against them, and doing so with almost brutal honesty. There’s a wicked guitar solo too that’s going to sound great live!
After the downbeat break-up song Jukebox And A Bar, which features some fantastic lyrics – it’s not often you hear words like ‘disposition’ or ‘incandescent’ in a country song! – Church closes the album with Drowning Man. The track begins with a capella performance from Church, showing off his husky yet smooth vocals as well as some fantastic harmonies with his long-time backing singer Joanna Cotton, before picking up into a funky guitar line and heavy drums which give it a jam session feeling. It’s a song about escaping the pressure of everyday life and doing your own thing – something which has been one of Church’s trademarks throughout his career. The sound of a fading-out tape brings the record full circle and it’s a song that stays with you long after it’s over.
Overall, with Desperate Man Eric Church has made a beautifully rich, complex and layered album that’s increasingly rewarding on multiple listens. It’s got all the elements of his previous records – strong vocal range, excellent guitar playing, wicked storytelling and fantastic lyrics – but there’s also an evolution in his sound as he brings in blues, gospel, rock and soul elements, alongside country, touches, that all works perfectly together. My only minor complaint is that it’s too short, clocking in at just over 35 minutes long, but that just gives you more time to listen again and dig deeper into the songs, peeling back the layers every time. ‘There’s a whole lot more going on here’, Church sings on the old-school country song Jukebox And A Bar, and you get the sense he doesn’t just mean his drinking establishment of choice.
Track listing: 1. The Snake 2. Hanging Around 3. Heart Like A Wheel 4. Some Of It 5. Monsters 6. Hippie Radio 7. Higher Wire 8. Desperate Man 9. Solid 10. Jukebox And A Bar 11. Drowning Man Record label: EMI Records Nashville/Snakefarm Release date: 5th October 2018