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Review: Eric Church Pledges Allegiance to Old-School Country-Rock Values on ‘Desperate Man’

Nashville’s ruling outsider considers our current political shit-show, asks for more whiskey.

eric church

John Peets

When Eric Church, with some nuance, noted his problems with the National Rifle Association in a Rolling Stone cover story earlier this year, the internet blew up in certain troll networks. Folks figuratively spit on him, in clear ignorance of his actual words, predicting/threatening that fans would abandon him en masse. Others applauded him for speaking up, hoping perhaps he’d lead a charge against country’s relative vow of silence around gun safety following last year’s mass shooting at Route 91 Harvest in Las Vegas — a festival Church performed at.

Unsurprisingly, neither of these things happened. And for better or worse, his new LP sidesteps largely hot-button debates. One exception is its opener, “The Snake,” a slithering, unplugged, dub-tinged parable suggesting strivers of all political shades consider their real enemies:

We stay hungry, they get fed

And don’t pass the plate around

Lie by lie, cheat by cheat

Venom in smiling teeth

They just run, those forked tongues

And the whole world’s burning down.

This may prompt fist-pumps from both sides of the aisle, and whether you think that’s a wise or a chickenshit move probably doesn’t worry Church. His music doesn’t need to take sides, of course, and might be stronger for it, uniting listeners willing to make up their own damn minds.

Consider this while listening to this LP, American songcraft steeped more than ever in idiosyncratic traditionalism, chilled out, reflective, refusing to pander to country radio trends, and furthering the southern soul-rock sound of his last set, the 2015 Mister Misunderstood. See the title track here, an unlikely but perfect hash of early Jackson 5 and the Stones “Gimme Shelter.” It’s Church at his best: catchy, soulful, and badass, with honky-tonk piano, organ, hand drums, twanging guitars and a drawling singer howling in tandem at the moon.

“Some Of It” is about wisdom. “Monsters” is, too, and faith (and sure, politicians if you like). “Hippie Radio” conjures Jackson Browne’s approach to country music, with sly nods to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” (produced and covered by Browne), along with “White Wedding” and “Lady Marmalade” — invoking the power of music that ostensibly shaped him, just like his 2012 breakthrough “Springsteen” did.

“Jukebox and a Bar” and “Solid” find Church pledging a grumpier devotion to tradition. The former mutters about self-driving cars amidst bedrock country iconography; the latter unspools like a jam between Pink Floyd and the Allmans, periodically settling into declarations of old school allegiances. In a similar spirit, he ends with his own brand of gospel testimony. “Drowning Man” is basically a shut-the-fuck-up directive to anyone slinging good life platitudes. Because what Church sees ain’t pretty or fair:

We put the smoke in a stack

Put the seed in the ground

While Lady Liberty turns her back

And Uncle Sam just turns around

Church’s response is to ask for more whiskey, and send roaring electric guitar noise up to the heavens. It may not be a sustainable response, but it’s a wholly reasonable one.

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