Eric Church doesn’t care about the Nashville mainstream. Or at least, that’s what he wants you to think.
Church has made a career out of toeing the line and then stepping over it with glee, only to teasingly step back over into more accessible fare. For every “Talladega,” there’s a “Devil, Devil” or a “Lightning” or a “Knives of New Orleans.” He’s never been able to fit squarely in any of the boxes that country music assigns its acolytes. Instead, he’s figured out how to have it both ways, with one foot in the radio-friendly realm and one foot in the innovator world. With his 6th album, the recently released “Desperate Man,” this straddling almost stretches Church too thin, but he manages to nail the high wire act by the end.
It seems like this album is the perfect combination of Church’s “Chief” and “Mr. Misunderstood” personas. Usually every Church album has to be experienced as an album, with track sequencing to give it context. That’s how “Mr. Misunderstood” worked, and that’s definitely how “The Outsiders” worked. Here, the sequencing seems to be “one for me, one for them” for 11 songs.
And in terms of “one for me,” the songs Church does here with reckless abandon are truly some of his most inventive works. Album opener “The Snake” calls to mind both the aforementioned “Devil, Devil” and the canon of Ray Wylie Hubbard with its biblical scope and middle finger raised toward the establishment. (Fittingly, Hubbard also co-wrote “Desperate Man.”)
Elsewhere, Church indulges his Southern funk sound he started playing with on “Chattanooga Lucy” on this album’s “Hangin’ Around,” goes Motown with “Heart Like A Wheel” and conjures up some “Sympathy For The Devil”-worthy vocal work on the title track.
However, the more radio-friendly songs kind of blend together with older Church fare. “Some of It” and “Solid” are two advice-giving songs that reminded me a lot of “Three Year Old,” “Like Jesus Does,” “What I Almost Was” and “The Hard Way,” but they sounded juuust different enough to stand on their own.
Some songs, like “Jukebox and a Bar,” “Monsters” and the album closer “Drowning Man,” combine Church’s commercial sensibilities with his “Outsider” aesthetic and witty lyricism to make a rare triple threat that you won’t see elsewhere. Seriously, where else are you going to find a country song with descriptions like “sixty-watt bulb” and “three-cell MagLite”?
Overall, “Desperate Man” suffers from some retreaded ground, and listening to it can give one a whiplash effect. (This is especially apparent on the abrupt transition between “High Wire” and “Desperate Man.”) Maybe that’s the point that Church is trying to make, that straddling two different worlds is jarring and feels like being pulled in two different directions. It’s still a great album (not my personal favorite from Church, but it’s up there) and I expect that seeing these songs live might change my opinion.
After all, Church knows what people think of him, and his greatest asset is using preconceived notions to his advantage. “Desperate Man” shows that he’s anything but desperate. A little conflicted, maybe, but certainly not desperate.
Photo taken from Flickr via Creative Commons license.