Album Review – Eric Church’s “Heart & Soul”

Editor’s Note: This review only includes the publicly-released volumes “Heart” and “Soul” from Eric Church, not the “&” fan club exclusive.

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Mainstream country music’s Heartland rocker and reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year Eric Church is back with new music, and as often the case for the man behind the Ray-Bans, the effort is ambitious, and maybe even a little bit ostentatious, at least on the surface. Two full-length albums and an EP to his fan club, and Church gets credit for the rare triple record release, even if logistically he could have squeezed this onto two platters.

The music of Eric Church is all about American nostalgia and restlessness. It’s Mellencamp, with a dash of Springsteen. Don’t take this assessment as a slight. This style of rock has taken just as much of a precipitous slide in recent years as mainstream country, and needs saving all its own since its earnestness is an important part of American music. And it happens to be that Eric Church is pretty superb at it when he gets a hold of the right song and lights into it, as is evident on numerous occasions during Heart & Soul.

Eric Church is always reaching for the anthemic, and at the beginning of the first album Heart, he attains it. “Heart On Fire” is a great introduction to both albums. “Heart of the Night” evokes all of the best memories of Bruce’s “Born to Run.” “Russian Roulette” makes the most of quality writing and a moody atmosphere. And both records make use of Eric’s increasingly-famous backup singer Joanna Cotten like never before in an advantageous and welcome manner. Eric has found his Emmylou.

“Stick That In Your Country Song” is less your typical country protest song, and more a call to action. Just this exercise of course could be read as prickly, problematic, and polarizing for some. But Church never rebukes the art of his fellow mainstream country performers specifically, or criticizes anything directly. He just challenges country music to dig deeper, like he has done with his own songs such as “Kill A Word” and “Monsters,” which Church didn’t just write and record, but released to country radio, be damned what their commercial prospects may be. That’s leadership from your reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year.

Church’s methodology for these sessions was to write songs in the morning and record them later that night. It’s probably safe to say that Eric and his co-writers came in with at least some rough ideas for songs, and didn’t pick this stuff out of thin air. But the freshness of the material resulted in an enthusiasm and passion in the recordings. Capturing that live fist-pumping energy in studio sessions has always been one of Eric Church’s strengths. Adding Joanna Cotten more to the mix just enhances this.

But this approach also results in a hit or miss mixed bag across the two records. Church sure does bring a lot of passion and energy to his music. Yet when pointed in the wrong direction, the result is just a lot of noise. On the second album Soul, the disco country of “Break It Kind of Guy” may show off Eric’s falsetto, but it’s a little much for Mr. Chief, even if Kacey Musgraves might approve. I’m not exactly sure why I’m being yelled at near the end of “Where I Wanna Be,” and it turns a good song idea into a bit of a mess.

The writing also kind of gives out near the end of Soul. “Bad Mother Trucker” is not as fun as it should be, and “Lynyrd Skynyrd Jones” is not as cool as it should be—just another song name checking other songs. The production also misses the mark in moments, where it hits on Heart, like the imaginative endings for the songs “Never Break Heart” and “Love Shine Down.”

Maybe Soul is the more fun record when you’re are six pack deep, but Heart is the more superior record for sure. It just says more, and with more feeling. It’s not always fair to rate two records released together against one another. But in this case, it is. And yes, as cliche and it sounds when reviewing a double (or triple) record, this project would have been better off condensed into one. But whatever, Eric Church wanted to make a big splash, which is his nature. And he probably did.

That’s what you get with Eric Church. You take the good with the bad, and the bluster with the sincerity. He’s way more rock than country, but way better than the rest of the mainstream. He’s Eric Church.

Heart – 7.5/10
Soul – 6/10

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