Following in the footsteps of pop stars like Beyoncé and Drake, Eric Church dropped the first surprise album of his career. With no fanfare, no promotional push and no advance single, Church's Mr. Misunderstood became the biggest country music story of the week — aside from that Chris Stapleton guy coming out of nowhere to sweep the CMA Awards.
But sometimes the best stuff just falls into your lap. Or is delivered anonymously to your doorstep, in the case of Mr. Misunderstood. Now on iTunes, with an official video for the title track and even a Church-centric pop-up store open in Nashville, the album is riding a wave of much-deserved buzz. Listen and you'll hear why many are already calling it a modern-country classic. Here are 10 things we noticed that back up that claim.
1. The Title Track's Irregular Rhythm
Keeping a steady rhythm is one of the first rules of country music. It propels listeners into a story and holds them there, and on a subconscious level it just feels good. Yet it can also be boring and betray the complexity of real life, which is probably why Eric Church threw it all out the window on Mr. Misunderstood's title track. Just as the ugly duckling kid in the lyrics begins to turn into a badass swan, Church's band kicks the beat up a notch, as if someone messed with the speed setting on their turntable. Then it backs down even slower than before, seeming to head for the finish line — but it's a fake out. The rhythm launches into yet another gear for a big finish, giving the story its own life cycle of good vibes and bad.
2. The Cutting "Knives of New Orleans"
Church already name-checked Bruce Springsteen with Chief's chart-topping single "Springsteen," but he's never sounded more born to run than on "Knives of New Orleans," a walloping, wild-eyed epic about an accused man hiding out in the French Quarter, pursued by authorities for drowning his girlfriend in Lake Pontchartrain. While his country-radio contemporaries may fill their own anthems with pyro-ready grunts of guitar distortion and digital snare hits stolen from Def Leppard's Adrenalize, Church packs his punch with restraint and conviction, waiting until the 1:37 mark to bring in the full band. After that, the song barrels ahead with serious bombast, building its way to a refrain — "I did what I did!" — that's equal parts rallying cry and confession.
3. The Tasteful Name-Checks
Church loves to call out his influences ("Springsteen," anyone?) but he's way too smart to throw an unjustified name-check into a song without having it also reflected sonically. Take "Mr. Misunderstood," where he mentions Jeff Tweedy but also matches a touch of melody and tempo to "Misunderstood," off Wilco's seminal double album Being There, plunging even further by sharing themes of restless adulthood and art as the true savior. And "Record Year" talks of three seminal J's – Jennings, Jones and James Brown – who all are crucial pillars in Mr. Misunderstood's songbook. But it's a more subtle reference to John Lee Hooker ("one bourbon, one scotch, one beer/I'm having a record year") that shows he's more than comfortable being stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis — or Delta — blues again.
4. The Album's Big Bang Creation
Mr. Misunderstood has a voice and sound of its own. A more mature, less aggressive posture, reflective lyrics and a subdued vibe that places Church's stories out front are its overwhelming characteristics, and none of it is by accident. Many of today’s major albums are pieced together over months (or even years) as artists try to cover all their stylistic bases, but that just gives their project a disjointed, slapped-together feel. Church's set, however, feels like one long conversation, something that will give it staying power as time goes on. In a letter to fans, he explains why: "I wrote my first song [for the album] late this summer. Twenty days later, I had 18 songs. Twenty days following that, I had 10 recorded." It's a true and rare snapshot of an artist in the wilds of creativity.
5. The Sky-High Falsetto and Groove of "Chattanooga Lucy"
No one could have predicted Church to take the "Spill the Wine" spirit of California funk pioneers War and fuse it with Merry Clayton's Muscle Shoals howl on the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter," but that's essentially what he did on "Chattanooga Lucy." And the result is the most thrilling country dance tune to come along in ages. The bigger surprise, though, is how he pops in a splash of crazy-high falsetto like Prince with his ass covered — in a proto-masculine Music Row, Church is completely unafraid to leave behind ordinary tropes. Recent rumors have Justin Timberlake recording in Nashville, but — sorry, JT — "Chattanooga Lucy" already stole this year's golden groove.
6. The Snail-Mail Delivery Method
Props to Team Church for keeping a lid on Mr. Misunderstood in a town known for its gabbing. But even more impressive is how the singer-songwriter chose to unveil the record: not with an email blast, but by old-fashioned snail mail. With albums so effortlessly shareable digitally — music has value, as we're so often reminded — it'd have been simple to disseminate the 10-track, 39-minute record via the Internet. But Church has never been that big a fan of technology and, by shunning the easy way, he gave fans the ultimate joy: one of opening a mysterious package that arrived on their doorstep.
7. The "Great Gig in the Sky" Vocals of Joanna Cotten
While Church himself is singing at a whole other level on this surprise new album, he wisely recruited some of the biggest and best — female — voices in music to back him up: Americana breakout Rhiannon Giddens and Kentucky songbird Andrea Davidson for "Kill a Word"; blues belter-guitarist Susan Tedeschi for the ballad "Mixed Drinks About Feelings"; and his longtime touring partner Joanna Cotten for "Chattanooga Lucy." All of the ladies add major punch to Mr. Misunderstood, but it's Cotten especially who blows the roof off the project with a vocal on "Lucy" that sounds like an outtake from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.
8. The Anonymous Cover Art
Rather than putting himself on the Mr. Misunderstood LP cover, Church chose McKinley James "Mickey" Smay, a 14-year-old high-school freshman from the Rochester, New York, area who also stars in the title tune's video, playing the outcast in the Buddy Holly glasses who gains inspiration and confidence through music. The young musician is the son of rock drummer Jason Smay, who also appears in the clip. For the young performer, the biggest surprise came prior the CMA Awards, when he was asked to announce the album's release at a press conference, since Church was busy prepping for his show-opening performance with Hank Williams Jr. In the end, the anonymity of the cover only added to the album's music-first nature.
9. The Lyrical A-Game
While Chief and The Outsiders no doubt showcased Church's prowess as a songwriter, Mr. Misunderstood shows him exploring much more sophisticated subjects with a deft, poetic hand, resulting in some of his best lyrical moments to date. "Kill the Word" poses language as a main villain, burying hate and harm under metaphors of pacifism and hope, and "Mixed Drink About Feelings," which he penned solo, is full of tender, aching confessions that are more emo than bro. "Turn off the bedroom light/put on a brave face and face the night," he sings, "it's either get used to this dread/or the cold spot in our bed." And "Mistress Named Music" and "Knives of New Orleans" both pack serious storytelling punch. "Tonight, a bleeding memory/is tomorrow's guilty vein," from "Knives," is half Jason Isbell, half Jamey Johnson, and pure Church.
10. The Toddler Wisdom of "Three Year Old"
For a lump in your throat the size of both Carolinas, check out the final song on Mr. Misunderstood, "Three Year Old." Church is now the father of two young boys, and he's discovered that their worldview is sometimes far clearer than an adult's. Backed by a whirring organ and careful mandolin, Church relates his devastatingly sweet and surprisingly wise observations in stripped-down fashion. "Walkin' barefoot through the mud will knock the rust off of your soul/I learned that, from a three year old," he sings. Church debuted the song solo during his Nashville concerts in July, but his intensity and good humor are more powerful on the album – it's easily the project’s most endearing moment.