Eric Church’s second album, Carolina, opens with a rush of big-guitar riffs and pounding drums, arena-rock style. Church starts singing through his issues. He’s overworked, stressed out and in bad health. Then, in a mighty hook of a chorus, he reveals the crux of his problems and why he lacks concern for his other concerns: His heart has been shattered, yet still he stands, so what else can happen to him? He paints a bleak picture of his life without her (“She turned this house into a tomb / Ghosts rattle in every room”) while still channeling a survivor’s mentality, a trick that gels perfectly with the tuneful, boisterous music.
Church kicked off his debut album, 2006’s Sinners Like Me, in similar fashion, with a song about his lover being gone — so gone Jesus will return before her. It’s not just the tone of this song, “Ain’t Killed Me Yet”, that’s snazzier. His band sounds tougher, better built. They power the song. That carries through the entire album. On Sinners Like Me, Church’s band did his songs no disservice, but this time around they impress. The rock songs rock harder, the pop songs are poppier and the ballads are layered with atmosphere.
Church’s inclination on Carolina is for feel-good songs about devastating heartbreak. Two of the pull quotes used to decorate photos in the CD booklet represent this partnership: “Wanna put some feel good in my soul” and “Your memory comes over me like the dark”. Absence haunts our narrator in seemingly every song, yet the songs rely on bright melodies over somber ones. The songwriters and the band translate these dark memories into upward movement, adding strength to propel that motion while making the music heavy and badass enough to keep the darkness always around.
At first, the songs on Carolina seem more ordinary than those on Sinners Like Me, at least when it comes to the lyrics. The first album offered some specific stories and characters, like the would-be football hero of “What I Almost Was”; the death-row experiences in “Lightning”; and the un-ready couple awaiting the home-pregnancy test results, hoping for “Two Pink Lines”. Carolina has few examples like these. The songs are more often powered by feelings than stories, more general than specific, yet, at the same time, all seem more personal. Where the last album turned outward towards the world, this one looks inside. Last time Church asked us what we felt (“How ‘Bout You”); this time the songs tend to dwell on what he’s going through. Even the trad-country-cred seeker here, “Lotta Boot Left to Fill”, is a personal letter, a screed against charlatans using the legends’ names for their own purposes, instead of a group-singalong in their tribute (“Pledge Allegiance to the Hag”).
It’s a testament to the quality of the songwriting and the force of the band that, of his two albums, Carolina actually qualifies as the more distinctive one and the better one. When the personal slant of the lyrics takes the songs closer to clichés, the band and the tight-song constructions punch everything up to the point where it doesn’t matter. “Lotta Boot Left to Fill” pokes at those who aren’t keeping country real enough in a way that seems old-hat by now, but the song has serious muscle. “Young and Wild” tackles familiar pop-and-rock-song sentiment, treasuring the recklessness of youth, but it has a great tune that Church and the band make a hit out of. The way they come down hard to punctuate the lines, “Burned up some cars / Burned down some hearts / Just to call myself a man” seems a trick Bon Jovi might use and a great one. And the lyric, “Stay young and wild as long as you can” best exemplifies popular music.
“Without You Here” contains some conventional ways of describing loneliness (“Without you here everything’s in black and white”), but what a hook the song has, with the lyrics proving more interesting than they first seem. Church tries to get somewhere other than where he is now, and he’ll do anything to get there. He’ll take a train, a time machine, whatever. The only place he wants to go is wherever she is, and she’s gone, never coming back. It’s a metaphysical dilemma of sorts: He only wants to be where he can never be.
The moody ballad, “Where She Told Me to Go”, has a similar focus on place. He sings of feeling completely trapped somewhere he doesn’t want to be, because she’s gone. Here, he left, but now he regrets it because he finds himself in a living hell. “Yeah what do you know / I think I wound up where she told me to go”, never naming, only describing, exactly where that place is. He finds himself blaming his surroundings for his mental state, yet wherever he goes, that same place will follow: “This place ain’t on no map / But how was I to know / It’s everywhere that she ain’t at”. A ghostly steel guitar hovers throughout the song. If Carolina at times can be more musically clever than lyrically clever, this song is both.
The first single, “Love Your Love the Most”, is actually the most lightweight song on the album. It contains a litany of things he likes and leads into a declaration of love that seems almost an afterthought. He loves rocky road ice cream and NASCAR, and oh yeah, he loves her, too. The album doesn’t lack potential singles, with at least four huge radio hits: “Young and Wild”, “Where She Told Me To Go”, “Without You Here” and “Hell on the Heart”, another pure-pop tune with an upward swing and a twisted heart in painful knots.
Sinners Like Me, an album with a trajectory, moved from a rougher tone to a more positive tone, ending up nearly giddy. Carolina has its own progression of mood that’s even better-formed but also more complicated. It starts out upbeat but with a trace of pain or bitterness always there. Along the way are ballads, stompers and pop numbers, but the mood in the air grows increasingly more introspective. Part of that is the content of the songs. The personal side of Carolina becomes more evident as the album goes on.
The second half pairs a love song Church wrote for his wedding with the title track, a song of remembrance and longing for home. Two songs later the album closes with another clearly personal song, a simple but heartfelt testament to those he has loved as he made his way through life: family, lovers and even songs. But the mood is also conveyed by the music itself, careful and detailed. “You Make It Look So Easy” sets the right romantic tone with strings that disappear, reappear and never get overbearing. “Carolina” puts his voice upfront and uses the music behind him to evoke first the South and then the anxious push/pull of memory. When Church first sings of his home state calling him back home, everything drops out but the bass. The guitar then pulls the song back up like U2 might.
“Those I’ve Loved” holds off on these textures at first and then amplifies them. The music builds up in intensity and then drops back to highlight the sentiments of the song. At the end, the band takes over, as guitars soar over a still-creeping pace, expressing a release of the frustrations lurking in the scenery throughout the album. It pulls the curtains down gracefully, with Church and the band making their own gentle but intense vanishing act to end an album filled with talk of disappearance and of the traces left behind.