There is a war going on for control of Eric Church’s soul.
It’s similar to the war that persists in the hearts and minds of most every mainstream country music artist. But for Eric Church, the war is different. It’s more pronounced, and has been playing out through the span of his career. You can hear it in the evolution of his music, and his overall attitude and approach. It’s that tug-of-war that occurs for every artist’s integrity, with the business interests of the industry on one side, and the artist’s natural inclinations for creative freedom and desire for critical praise on the other. Some artists are more adept at muting the little voices that dissuade them from completely selling out and doing whatever they must for the upmost commercial achievement, while others spend much of their careers wrangling for control of the name their parent’s gave them from the money changers on Music Row.
Desperate Man is unlike any other album you’ll hear in the mainstream, and not just in the Chris Stapleton or Kacey Musgraves aspect where the songs are unconcerned about courting radio. On one side, Eric Church want’s to be “Chief”—the braggadocios entertainer in aviators, growling and pumping his fist to an arena full of adoring fans. He wants to have those monster singles, and those arena rock songs that he knows will be epic at concerts and make his audience go crazy. He wants to command the biggest, most fervent and dedicated fan base in all of mainstream country music. He wants to be king of the world.
On the other side, Eric Church likes being that one guy in the mainstream that does whatever the hell he wants, slipping loose from the bonds of producers, radio requirements, and even fan expectations, going off on crazy musical tangents nobody expects, driving label heads mad, and being an “Outlaw,” if only in spirit and not in name. He wants to be the rebel.
The latter approach is what Church takes with his newest album Desperate Man, and it results overall in a record that is a little bit tough to pin down. Some tracks feel downright incomplete, though it feels like this is choreographed to be “artsy” as opposed to being the result of a visionary accident by a tortured soul. You also wonder how much boredom has come into play in his career as Church starts to noodle with an even wider array of influences, and works himself into corners with a few song ideas that don’t really work out, but still made the final cut. Church once infamously boasted that he’d successfully stretched the creative limits of country and music so much with his record The Outsiders, there was nowhere else to go. Of course this wasn’t true, but that doesn’t mean Church didn’t believe it at the time.
But Desperate Man may be Eric Church’s most creative, and most enriching record yet, and that says something after he turned a significant corner on his previous record Mr. Misunderstood from being Mr. Machismo, to being one of the most interesting and original men in the mainstream. It’s still not fair to label Desperate Man country, though a few songs would qualify as such via the songwriting. It’s distinctly a roots rock record, even more stripped-down and sweaty than Mr. Misunderstood. But the album works on many levels, regardless of the genre affiliation.
Ray Wylie Hubbard’s involvement in this project isn’t just relegated to the songwriting of the title track. Moments of Desperate Man feel directly influenced by the heroin era of The Rolling Stones, the records of Small Faces, and Tony Joe White—all who also happen to be strong influences of Hubbard as well. The first song on the record—the stripped down and broody “The Snake”—is crafted straight from the Ray Wylie school of songwriting, with the Biblical forces of good and evil at play, and man right in the middle. This record’s soul is swampy blues.
Whether you call it country, blues, or roots rock, the songwriting of “Monsters” is just downright excellent, and may be fair to label Gospel-leaning more than anything. The next to last song on the album “Jukebox and a Bar” is a honky tonk song if there ever was one, even though the music takes more of a roots approach in line with the rest of the record. Same goes for the gritty and nostalgic “Solid” about valuing the real things in life, and leaving the fleeting behind—kind of like what Eric Church tries to do in this record, avoiding drum machine sounds, or trend-chasing elements of any sort, and instead tempering this record in gritty and grounded guitar, drum, and bass arrangements, and using scarcity at times to set the mood.
Eric Church also makes sure to include multiple songs that are sensible tracks for radio, without having them stand out in the sequencing. “Some Of It” is a quality effort, and though perhaps a little sleepy, may work as a 3rd or 4th single. “Hippie Radio,” with its nostalgia and familiar song references is downright ripe for radio. It’s fair to characterize the song as “Springsteen” and “Talladega,” just re-written, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Few probably could anticipate a song like “Desperate Man” being something appropriate for today’s radio environment, but get over the “Do Do Do” parts and this track is a downright scorcher. It’s also a good representation of the vibe of this record.
Eric Church’s singing might be one of the most remarkable and unexpected aspects of Desperate Man. He’s not a distinctly gifted singer, but he does what he can with what he’s got, so to speak. And on Desperate Man, he might hit his vocal high mark, especially during the classic Motown feel of “Heart Like a Wheel.” The hint of a Carolina accent mixed with a soulful cadence is surprisingly effective for Church here.
Strange decisions and a few missteps come with the positive aspects of Desperate Man, especially the falsetto singing of “Higher Wire,” making it a harrowing listening experience in what is a mild song in the first place. The watery, Leslie speaker-style effect on the vocal and guitar of “Solid” doesn’t seem to score the intended effect, unless it was to distract from an otherwise decent track. Also the first song “The Snake” is a compelling composition, but the messy, empty, and loose approach to the song results in it taking some time to get your bearings with this record, which some will continue to have issues with due to the varying influences and moods the album meanders through. The Do Do Do’s of the title track also deserve mention here as a questionable decision, though they tend to grow on you better than the other polarizing elements of the record.
Eric Church understands the two worlds a mainstream country performer must live in. He’s got to deliver some radio hits, which he does on Desperate Man while staying within his own parameters of inventiveness, sound, and originality. But those album listeners want something with more depth and creative aptitude. Passive radio and streaming listeners won’t even bother delving into the album cuts of Desperate Man, so you might as well cater them to the Americana crowd—a feat Eric Church accomplishes well, if making a few slips along the way.
Eric Church is an album artist. Two of his last three albums won the CMA for Album of the Year, and probably deserved it. He’s also a live artist, and his albums feed new material into the live set. If radio wants to help out, he’ll take it, but that’s not his target. Most importantly though is now for a second record in a row, Eric Church has illustrated a maturing of his sound and approach to music. Blame it on the birth of children, or the mixed reception for his 2014 record The Outsiders, but he’s found his compass. “Chief” is still there, as is his desire for world domination through the mainstream. But it’s been balanced now by a more sensible, and more grounded attitude toward the music, where Eric Church’s roots are more entwined with his output and the legacy of American roots music, whose appeal is more stable and everlasting.
Desperate Man won’t go to battle with the absolute best that all of country music has to offer in 2018 when considering the strong field of independent artists, but it probably will come out near the top when it comes to the mainstream. Is Eric Church really a “Desperate Man”? Of course not, but neither is Ray Wylie Hubbard. Is this album country? No, it’s not. Desperate Man is definitely more Ray Wylie Hubbard than George Strait. But is that a bad thing? Of course it isn’t. It should be seen as an achievement to push something like this out on the mainstream level.
Through his efforts to build a strong fan base apart from radio, Eric Church has earned the latitude from his label to record and release whatever the hell he wants. That’s an important victory in itself. But what you do with that freedom is what’s most paramount. And what Eric Church has done is released an interesting and entertaining record a place apart from the norms of the mainstream that awakens the roots of American music. It may not be a masterpiece, and it may not appeal to the entirety of the independent crowd. But it is a major accomplishment considering the parameters.
And maybe most importantly, Desperate Man is Eric Church putting to bed the worst tendencies of “Chief,” slipping free of the commercial priorities of Music Row, and finding the true voice and direction he’s been desperately searching for.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7.5/10)
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