ALBUM REVIEW: Eric Church – ‘Desperate Man’

Eric Church is more than just a singer, songwriter and performer. He is an ideal. A figurehead. A carefully engineered construct, in these modern times of connectivity and sharing, that harks back to a halcyon past when good men stood strong, walked the line with taciturn resilience and loved their wives and children with fierce loyalty. Let’s not forget, the guy has a degree in marketing for god’s sake, and he has marketed himself brilliantly as a man at odds with the modern world.

Church, perhaps more than any other Country artist in the last ten years, has been on a tremendous musical journey of growth and discovery. Think back to the long hair, youthful looks and musical exuberance of tracks like ‘Two Pink Lines’ – a great song but a genre song – and contrast that with the artistic freedom and depth of tracks like ‘Kill A Word’. What a progression, one unlike any other artist in the Country genre. Compare him with his contemporaries like Lady Antebellum and Blake Shelton, both credible and talented musicians in their own right, but both, largely, still making music in the same way that they were a decade ago – not Eric Church. Of course, that belligerence and willingness to stand up to authority and employ a middle finger is still there – in 2006 he got kicked off the Rascal Flatts ‘Me and My Gang’ tour for playing past the time limits each night and costing the Flatts thousands in overtime pay to the stagehands so what did he do? He toured the same cities on the same evening for the rest of that tour under the guise of the ‘Me and Myself’ tour! Last year, against accepted convention, he played 3-4 hour shows, with no support, playing through the whole of his back catalogue in a physically gruelling show because he knew that was what the fans wanted, that was after releasing previous album, ‘Mr Misunderstood’ in secret with no promotion or fanfare – the music may have changed but Church’s determination to deliver for his fans has not and neither has his loyalty to protect his private life for his family. We don’t really know anything about the man behind the glasses other than what we read in his lyrics and what part of the construct that is Eric Church he allows to see – in that respect, if you are to believe the construct, his new album, ‘Desperate Man’ might well be his most personal and honest album to date.

Church has been at pains, over his last three albums, to cultivate an image of himself as an outsider. He stands apart from the Nashville hordes and doesn’t deign to get involved with show business or industry shenanigans. He is aloof but not with his fans – ‘Desperate Man’ maintains and extends that image but adds a strong moral compass into the mix for the first time. The type of morality he flirted with on tracks like ‘Kill A Word’ is well in evidence on ‘Desperate Man’ and he has now got the confidence and the loyal fan base to begin to pass comment on political issues too, so his recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, in which he called out the NRA and called for greater gun control, whilst creating something of a social media tsunami amongst certain (southern) sections of his fan base and the media didn’t harm him at all really in the way that stepping into politics proved to be a death knell for the career of the Dixie Chicks because Church is now unimpeachable, seemingly just like the subject of the opening track on ‘Desperate Man’, ‘The Snake’.

‘The Snake’ is a fascinating track for many reasons. It stands defiant against the current Spotify-driven trend of getting to a chorus within 30 seconds, starting, as it does, with over a minute of simple, finger picked guitar – what a statement with which to open your album!

That statement is further cemented by the lyrics, which involve a conversation between the Republicans and Democrats, here represented by a Rattlesnake and a Copperhead, about which one is the more evil of the two! It’s a bluesy, brooding, sinister song wrapped in quasi-religious imagery about the nature of evil today and how that evil is probably no different now as it was back in the Garden of Eden! It stands as one of Church’s most ambitious and interesting songs and is a great indication of what is to come.

‘Desperate Man’, more than any other Eric Church album, is dripping in storytelling and personal opinion. ‘Heart Like A Wheel’, a 3/4 time soul song with more than half a foot in the Motown camp, is a paean towards loyalty and steadfastness within a marriage. Despite the fact that, ‘She’s caviar and mascara,’ and he’s, ‘corduroy and leather,’ Church opines on what it takes to keep a marriage together once the initial shine has worn off. ‘Monsters’, one of the best songs that he has ever written, sees Church taking us through his childhood fears in one verse, his adult fears in another and then completes the circle by giving us a glimpse of his own children’s fears in the final verse. Again, that espousal of faith, steadfastness and inner strength bleeds through the lyrics like a personal manifesto. I love the line, ‘Falling on my knees is my new turning on the light,’ as he describes the replacement of using a light in his childhood to lance the monsters in his closest with using faith to achieve the same ends as an adult, serving only to re-enforce what a decent, honest and trustworthy man the construct that is Eric Church is.

‘Solid’ and ‘Jukebox and a Bar’ also convey the same messages of simplicity and strength. The former begins with a bluesy, almost Prog-rock, Pink Floyd-esque opening before settling into something more musically familiar to Country fans as Church sings about all the things in life that keep him grounded in this tumultuous world. A steady drum beat mirrors the steadfast message in the lyrics and some funky bass (a real feature on this album, it has to be said) drive the song forward brilliantly, although I am a little sceptical that he still owns a pair of Levi’s from 1993 if I am being totally honest, but again, the construct and image of this person that is Eric Church might well do so. ‘Jukebox and a Bar’ sees Church giving us a simple message augmented by simple instrumentation – music and beer – ‘no better prescription for my broken disposition.’ Church, once more, is at odds with the modern world, just like he is on album closer, ‘Drowning Man’, which is a one-man tirade against social media. The song opens and closes with the same lines for dramatic effect – ‘Don’t tell me about no beach, don’t wanna hear about your mountain,’ he sneers at the Instagram hordes, living their lives in the public glare, competing for the oxygen of attention. The song breaks out at one point, all discordant noises and disjointed rhythms, as Church has a full-on tantrum about the banality of modern life before it settles again into something calmer to bring the album to a close.

The title track, ‘Desperate Man’, is an extension of the theme explored on ‘Drowning Man’. The song is written from the perspective of someone struggling with the weight of the world on their shoulders, but, similar to ‘Knives of New Orleans’ on his previous album, Church keeps the exact nature of the pressure to himself – that ambiguity means the song becomes more widely relatable to listeners and their own lives, be it work, finance, relationship or personal struggles, as all of a sudden, ‘Desperate Man’ could have been written for them. ‘Higher Wire’ does exactly the same job – Church physically strains to hit the notes in this song, as the subject of the song physically strains to walk the ‘higher wire ‘ of their problems. In both, Church is telling the listener, ‘I know what you’re going through, I got you brother.’

The biggest ‘message song’ on ‘Desperate Man’ is ‘Some of It’ – and here we get Church’s ‘Black Swan’ – probably his most commercial song since ‘Rollercoaster’ and the song, if released to radio, that could put him back on top of the charts and firmly in the glare of the CMA awards panel, should he so desire that – but wouldn’t it be typical of Eric Church to never release it? He’s sitting on the ‘Humble and Kind’ of 2019 with ‘Some Of It’ as he goes further than espousing what it takes to a hold a marriage together or what it means to be a man in a song that tells us what it means to be a human being. It’s genius, one of the best songs he’s ever written and I wouldn’t put it past him to not release it to radio because that is what radio would want!

My favourite album of Eric Church’s will always be ‘The Outsiders’ because for me he is at his best walking that juxtaposed line where Country meets Rock, but ‘Desperate Man’ comes a very close second. It’s more commercial than ‘Mr Misunderstood’ and more accessible too. It’s probably the most open, honest and available Eric Church album there has ever been – and by god, if he is as earthy, organic, steadfast and true as the person singing these songs then he is a damn fine human being and one that should pass comment and be more of a role model than he allows himself to be outside of his music. The world needs more people like Church right now, not just to make the soundtrack to our lives but to step forward and call out the crap, both online and in the real world, that is just not OK. ‘Desperate Man’ is part album, part self-help guide and if everyone behaved like they were a character in one of these songs the world would be a much happier and harmonious place and that is the message of ‘Desperate Man’: listen, engage, take on board and act accordingly – live your life like an Eric Church song and lets bring some kindness, some strength and some dignity back to a world sorely lacking in all three things right now.

James Daykin
@rockjames