There’s a part of me that wishes I had a firmer clue where Eric Church was going.
See, it seemed simple enough in the early 2010s, where he adopted a brand of swaggering rock-tinged country that could come across a little overblown but tended to have enough details, hooks, and nifty ideas bending around the genre of country music that critics gave him a pass. Then came The Outsiders in 2014, an album that was critically beloved at the time but in retrospect seems to have held up as worse for wear, at least in the circles I run. I’d argue that the record earned a lot of points for its novel steps towards progressive rock and metal that were damn near unheard of at the time, and the sheer balls behind the risk won acclaim… even though even then I was calling it a bloated, overwrought, sloppily produced mess that overplayed its hand, especially in comparison to the other boundary-pushing country albums of that year, and I reckon my opinion has held up a little more strongly than some of that critical acclaim.
And nothing was the strongest rebuke to The Outsiders’ awkward reception was Eric Church’s follow-up the next year with Mr. Misunderstood, a much needed course correction that still was on the outskirts of country – more roots rock and Americana – but showcased a fair bit more temperance and nuance in Church’s songwriting and compositions, still taking risks but with a little more of a level head. And from there, all the buzz seemed to indicate his long-overdue album this year would follow in a similar path – still more rock and blues inspired than outright country, still with a casual blend of genres that thankfully Jay Joyce’s much-improved production would flatter, only this time picking up more of a southern, swampy edge that would reflect Church’s dogged commitment to pushing the genre into territory not quite untapped but certainly neglected. And given how much I liked Mr. Misunderstood, I had a lot of high hopes for Desperate Man, especially with its terrific lead-off self-titled single. So what did we find with this?
So this… wasn’t really what I was expecting, and for once it doesn’t look like I’m alone in that regard, because I’ve seen a fair number of people at a loss on what to make of Desperate Man. And in stark comparison to The Outsiders, it has less to do with the wild throes of experimentation and more about the strange dichotomy at the album’s core, which some have characterized as a war for Eric Church’s artistic soul. I’m not sure I’d go that far, mostly because it seems more like an awkward attempt to marry a very specific compositional style and content with tones that don’t always align well with it, and when it doesn’t seem to have enough firepower to back up that fusion, it winds up feeling closer to the sidestep Brothers Osborne took earlier this year on Port Saint Joe, a lateral movement into a strange zone where I wind up feeling I should like this a lot more than I actually do.
And to discuss why this doesn’t quite work, I think it’s important to look back at Mr. Misunderstood and why that album had so much resonance on a compositional level – because yes, there were definitely songs that pushed its instrumental tone towards blues and soul, but for the most part the production was just close enough to a mainstream country rock sound that it made the more daring choices in composition and writing all the more striking and poignant. Desperate Man seems to take the opposite approach, pushing the production and tones further towards that swampy brand of Americana, blues, and soul while in terms of raw compositional structure sticking closer to traditional country song structures, with nothing close to the more adventurous instrumental digressions that drove songs like ‘Mistress Named Music’ or even the title track of that last album. And on some level, that does make a bit of sense – Church has gone on the record saying that he was a little desperate to find the album in the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, to snap out of that funk, and when you listen through these oddly abortive songs, it’s hard to avoid the sense that Church was trying so hard to get something on paper that the greater depth behind the ideas doesn’t materialize in the same way. Certainly not the same sense of energy – yeah, the spiky bass stabbing at country funk on ‘Hangin’ Around’ gets close, but the hook feels undercooked and the song never takes off the way it should, which leaves the title track as the sole song with any consistent fire or presence. And while I’ve said on Billboard BREAKDOWN exactly why this song kicks ass, it’s one of only a few sparks of life this album could use.
Now to be fair, I get the feeling Eric Church understood this: hell, by starting the album off with the dank simmer of ‘The Snake’, he was clearly setting the stage for a more tense, low-key album… but if you’re going in that direction, you need to eventually pay off that tension or the project loses some of that impact, which can feel all the more awkward when some of the songs can feel as clipped and abortive as they do. Part of this could have been improved if they had just given a few cuts a little more room to breathe or spread out, given that there are more songs on this album and it winds up shorter than Mr. Misunderstood – the closing track ‘Drowning Man’ is a prime example, as giving the choppy solo some actual groove to hit a climax off the organ – but I think some of the production choices shouldn’t be ignored either. And believe it or not, I’m not blaming Jay Joyce for this, as his grasp on subtleties of texture has improved by leaps and bounds in picking up fuller guitar tones, potent grooves, and especially the female backing vocals behind a fair number of these songs but especially the title track and ‘Heart Like A Wheel’. No, what might be the problem is Eric Church’s singing – and again, I get the purpose of deepening the mix, using live vocals or adding vibrato to the guitar line in order to accentuate loneliness, it’s the same purpose of empty wide shots in a movie. The problem is that Eric Church is not Courtney Marie Andrews who has the pipes and power to command a mix like this, and when you tack on slower tempos and Church for some reason dipping into his higher register on ‘Higher Wire’, he can’t quite project enough to anchor some of these tunes… and really, when you realize the actual chord structures feel increasingly conventional, the songs start to feel increasingly like skeletons demanding a bit more meat on the bones. That’s not saying there aren’t good tunes here – many have highlighted the more intimate and acoustic ‘Monsters’ as a high point and I agree, especially with the wiry bass plucks, and it’s hard to hear the even more stripped down ‘Hippie Radio’ as Eric Church making his own version of a Lori McKenna song like ‘We Were Cool’ with a bit more organ. But on more than a few songs we get interesting guitar phrases and melodies to open up songs like ‘Heart Like A Wheel’ and ‘Solid’ before a pivot towards more conventional country soul of which I’ve heard done with more convincing firepower throughout the past three or four years – hell, even at points by Church himself!
And yet in a strange way I can’t really blame him for any of this, and that means we have to look at the content – because if Church was looking to present a record that is a study in contrasts, tension, and distrust, from hard-won wisdom to an increasingly unsteady foundation, it’s this one. Even the most anthemic songs are desperate, and if there was an asterisk placed next to Church’s outlaw posturing after Mr. Misunderstood revealed his true soul as a music nerd, an even heavier one comes here as he struggles to find his way forward amidst a world that’s making less and less sense – which is not a bad thing, for the record, that’s complexity I really appreciate. And thus the final third of this album winds up circling back to the solid things he can really depend on: the tangible country artifacts that are a bit worse for wear but intact, a few good bottles of whiskey, and the music – which would be conventional enough until you realize by ‘Drowning Man’ that there’s a whole lot of things he’s trying to avoid through this escapism, and even as he tells the audience he doesn’t want to hear about them, it doesn’t mean they aren’t off his mind. And if I’m looking for a place where the album’s writing stumbles, it would likely be here, because for all of his knack for setting a scene with detailed and textured language, Church can get maddeningly unspecific about his real demons and wisdom, which at some point you do need to move into the forefront with this style of production to provide a deeper emotional core. Hell, while I’m still a little irritated that ‘The Snake’ opts for a cynical, ‘both-sides-are-bad’ approach in its thinly disguised political metaphor, it at least provides a clue behind Church’s greater anxiety, and while we get snippets on ‘Drowning Man’ as well in the second verse, it’s one place where I’d argue truly cutting words would have more impact. Most of the rest of the album sets the scene but rarely moves within it to create greater drama, and that lack of a stronger thematic core leaves the album feeling oddly disjointed and scattered – which might reflect Church’s state of mind, sure, but knowing the origin point of that disquiet, and the fact that he released a song called ‘Why Not Me’ last year that could very well have served as the centerpiece of this record and provided that thematic anchor, far enough removed from the tragedy to likely fit even stronger in this album’s instability and introspection…
And now I’m rebuilding the album, so let me take a step back with this and judge what we got instead of what I wished it could be – because again, I do think this album is pretty damn good. I wouldn’t say it’s better than Mr. Misunderstood, but given the place where Church was in making this, I’m not sure you could expect that… but that also doesn’t mean it doesn’t have issues with pacing and songs that could use a little more meat and complexity to match the production taking more risks. And thus for me, I’m giving this a solid 7/10 and a recommendation, although I’m genuinely not sure what this means for Eric Church going forward. I’m inclined to say it reflects a new path towards more bluesy Americana, but the uncertainty driving this album means that anything’s possible… but hey, this is still good, I’m still onboard.