Eric Church has always been excellent at balancing whiskey-charged toughness with open-hearted musical subtlety: His first great hit was 2011’s “Springsteen,” a masterwork of literary detail and melodic texture, and 2014’s The Outsiders nailed a 21st-century country-rock sweet spot. So it’s no big shock to hear him big-upping Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy (and even nicking one of his tunes) on this album, where he cleverly juggles genres and often leans on his somber singer-songwriter side. Recorded in about a month and surprise-released to fans, it’s full of casual stunners: “Mixed Drinks About Feelings” is a closing-time piano duet with Susan Tedeschi; “Chattanooga Lucy” sees Church working a soul falsetto over a stomping dance groove; and the backing track for “Kill A Word” is like a twang-born kissing cousin of early-Eighties Fleetwood Mac.
Church’s well-observed writing and warm, generous wit ground the album, particularly on two examples of the small-town vignettes he does so well: The title track, which builds from acoustic reverie to barnburner as he empathizes with a misfit who has long-shot rock & roll dreams – tipping its hat to Wilco’s 1996 opus Being There along the way – and the prettily elegiac “Round Here Buzz,” which enters the term “lit up like that one stoplight” into the canon of go-nowhere drunk-dude one-liners. The most moving moment, “Record Year,” is Church at his ecumenical best. It’s a sweet, sad ode to post-breakup boozing next to a turntable that has Waylon, Willie and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life in its stack of vinyl Band-Aids. Tweedy should be happy to be included in such fine company.