One year ago this week, Eric Church celebrated the final moments of his 2017 tour on the Las Vegas Strip, where he played an outdoor show to 22,000 attendees at the Route 91 Harvest festival.
“You guys have fun tonight in Las Vegas!” he shouted from the front row, after leaping from the stage to the ground during the final moments of “Springsteen.” Then, while casinos like the Mandalay Bay glittered in the distance, he grew emotional, telling the crowd that “this song, 100 percent, is about nights like tonight, when the weather is gorgeous and the people are gorgeous.”
That was Friday. Church had already left town by Sunday night — October 1st, 2017 — when a gunman fired round after round from the Mandalay Bay’s 32nd floor into the crowd below. Fifty-eight were killed. Hundreds more were injured. And Church was forever changed.
“I went through a period, a funk, for six months at least,” he told Rolling Stone‘s Josh Eells in this summer’s cover story. “I had anger. I’ve still got anger. Something broke in me that night, and it still hasn’t healed.”
Church’s new album Desperate Man, out October 5th, shines a light on the Chief’s scars. It’s an album about hard lessons, last calls, working-class weariness, father-and-son dynamics, and the road-tested love — for oneself and for others — that throws each struggle into relief. Produced once again by Jay Joyce, Desperate Man sounds both familiar and wholly unexpected, aligned less with Nashville’s modern-day country trends (although Church’s voice, with its backwoods twang and tight, nasally tone, is more traditionally country-sounding than the bulk of his peers) and more with the soulfully raw roots music emanating from other cultural hubs of the Bible Belt. The sounds of Memphis, New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta all figure heavily here, and while Las Vegas is never mentioned, the influence of that night is felt nonetheless.
Here, we break down Desperate Man‘s 11 songs.
1. “The Snake”
An opening track of biblical proportions, “The Snake” spins the story of two serpents in an Eden-like garden, plotting the overthrow of humanity. In interviews, Church has dubbed “The Snake” a parable for America’s two-party political system, with the reptiles joining forces behind closed doors to wreak havoc upon the voting public. His delivery is as menacing as his subject matter, with spoken-word verses that slither their way into a haunting chorus.
2. “Hanging Around”
The Chief breaks a sweat on this Muscle Shoals-worthy blast of Southern funk. The album’s first up-tempo song, “Hanging Around” is full of stuttered guitar riffs, syncopated organ and an unexpected vocal breakdown that finds Church singing in his lowest range, almost like he’s channeling Sly and the Family Stone’s baritone-voiced bass player, Larry Graham.
3. “Heart Like a Wheel”
“Get in this heart like a wheel, and baby, we’ll roll,” Church croons over a shuffling groove, while his longtime backing vocalist Joanna Cotten chimes in with gospel harmonies. An opposites-attract love song, “Heart Like a Wheel” finds its writer doubling his own vocal melodies on the electric guitar, a move that drives home the tune’s message of unity.
4. “Some of It”
The father of two young boys, Church dispenses line after line of hard-won advice on this easy-to-love crowd-pleaser. “Beer don’t keep, love’s not cheap, and trucks don’t wreck themselves,” he sings during the first verse. More aligned with contemporary country radio than most of Desperate Man, “Some of It” proves its singer’s willingness to sideline some of the very traits that have defined his brand — including an acclaimed habit of ruffling Nashville’s feathers — for the sake of a good song.
Church measures the distance between his childhood imagination and his adulthood reality. “I keep my faith intact and make sure my prayers are said,” he sings in each chorus, “because I’ve learned that the monsters ain’t the ones beneath the bed.” A slow burner, “Monsters” kicks into high-gear around the minute-and-a half mark, muffling the things that go bump in the night with screaming electric guitars and pounding percussion.
6. “Hippie Radio”
On 2014’s The Outsiders, Church sang the praises of arena-sized rock music with the wild, guitar-driven “That’s Damn Rock & Roll.” He continues the sonic salute with “Hippie Radio,” a nostalgic tribute to Billy Idol, Warren Zevon and all the artists who’ve formed the soundtrack to his life. Unplugged and scaled-back, the song itself differs heavily from its Outsiders cousin, with the only percussion arriving in the form of handclaps.
7. “Higher Wire”
Church’s drummer takes a break once again, allowing his boss to drive forward this reverb-heavy soul tune with the sound of his own stomped feet. Loose and atmospheric, “Higher Wire” fittingly features one of the Chief’s highest vocals to date.
8. “Desperate Man”
Three years after dubbing Ray Wylie Hubbard “a real bad mother” during “Mr. Misunderstood,” Church teams up with the songwriter to co-write the title track. With a stoned, boogieing groove worthy of “Sympathy for the Devil” and a climatic chorus built for classic-rock radio, “Desperate Man” wears its influences proudly, resulting in one of Church’s finest singles in years.
With a spacey intro straight out of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, “Solid” kicks off with a nod to the songs that came before it. “This old school, it’s true and true; it’s solid,” Church sings, happy to plant his flag in time-tested ground. The bulk of the song is surprisingly unique, though, thanks to a mix of muted drums, a tremolo-heavy vocal effect and a cyclical guitar riff.
10. “Jukebox and a Bar”
All the amenities of the modern world can’t distract a heartbroken man from his own misery. “We’ve got pin-point GPS, all you need is an address, but her love is the one thing I can’t find,” sings Church, who winds up seeking refuge on a barstool. There, with a drink in his hand and rolls of quarters in his pocket for the jukebox, he tries his best to forget the reason he came.
11. “Drowning Man”
A drinking anthem for the working class, “Drowning Man” closes the album with blue-collar power balladry and pissed-off punch. “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 sings, calling for the bartender to help ease his mind — a mind troubled by the growing gap between the privileged and the impoverished — with $50 worth of whiskey.