It’s unclear why Eric Church decided to put out 24 songs on three albums, two full-length and one extended play, over the span of a week instead of one tight single LP. I wish I could say that it was because the material was uniformly excellent and there was nowhere to cut, but that’s not the case. There is plenty of dross on the two main projects. Heart and Soul are both nine tracks each and are each only about half full of good cuts. I haven’t heard the middle record called Ampersand and spelled with the symbol, &, as it’s a fan club exclusive. However, my guess is one jam-packed record called Heart & Soul, would have been a better move.
It’s hard to blame the former Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year for pulling out all the stops. He infuses the 18 songs on the two main albums with plenty of energy. No doubt they all would inspire live audiences to sing, clap, and stomp along. On record, however, many of these tunes suffer from mediocrity. They struggle for relevance or just sounding different from what one has heard a million times before.
The two albums, Heart and Soul, share more in common than they are different. Presumably, Heart is more about love, and Soul concerns spirit, but this seems a distinction without a difference on the LPs. The hearts that Church sings about on the first one are usually broken or in flames (or both). That’s true on the second album as well.
The heart metaphor also seems forced. Heart begins with two songs with the word “heart” in the title: “Heart on Fire” and “Heart of the Night” and one other explicitly named heart track (“Never Break Heart”), and they are easily forgettable. There’s nothing the matter with these songs. It’s just that we’ve heard Church sing them before with slightly altered words and melodies. Part of what’s made Church such an interesting artist is his ability to sound fresh and new from album to album. Songs like these three just come off as generic Church.
The first album doesn’t start to surprise until the run of three songs beginning with the third track, “Russian Roulette”, “People Break”, and “Stick That on Your Country Song”. Church’s version of Russian roulette is playing the car radio. He’s at his most poetic as Church describes the pleasures and pain of needing that fix for a good song to take one’s troubles away. “Holdin’ this old gunmetal grey Chevrolet pedal down / Leadfoot in a steel toe / Out runnin’ the memories, rackin’ up miles / Gettin’ gone as I can takin’ my chances spinnin’ that dial.”
“People Break” takes the intensity down a notch as Church observes how things don’t always change for the better, but they always change — as do people’s feelings for each other. The meta-lyrics of “Stick That on Your Country Song” concern war, poverty, and other ills and the irrelevance of so many bro-country hits when it comes to dealing with the real world. Church’s status as a leading artist sardonically guarantees that it will be a hit. It’s the one song on Heart Church did not write or co-write.
The second run of songs worth noting are the two near the end of the album as Church paints a bar full of life’s losers in love as “lunatics, liars, and also-rans” in “Crazyland” and” kickin’ Saturday’s ass” in “Bunch of Nothing”. Church holds back from vocal excesses on these songs for the most part and lets the words and melodies playfully tell the tales. The album ends on a somber note with the plea “Love Shine Down”, which sounds similar to many other past Church compositions.
Soul begins with an ode to rock (“Rock and Roll Found Me”) instead of country and cites the Doors and “Ode to Billy Joe” as touchpoints to Church’s origins as a musician. It’s basically a rewrite of “Mr. Misunderstood”, but what follows makes one wish for another retread as “Look Good and You Know It” may be the blandest track on either record. However, the next song, “Bright Side Girl”, may be the best tune. It’s a mostly acoustic tribute to the one person who can cheer you up when everything looks “damp and dark in the walls of my heart” (and note, this is on Soul, not Heart). The song’s modest ambition and delivery only enhance its impact. Church mostly goes back to rocking on the next group of songs that follow (“Break It Kind of Guy”, “Hell of a View”, “Where I Wanna Be”, “Jenny”), but they come off as pale imitations of songs made popular by artists like by Bob Seger, Dierks Bentley, Steve Earle.
Soul ends with two novelty songs, “Bad Mother Trucker” about a lady driver who could do it all, and “Lynyrd Skynyrd Jones”, a Casey Beathard prequel to the Lynyrd Skynyrd song about the title character. It should be noted Beathard co-wrote many of the tracks on both discs, and Church employed a host of other co-writers on these records, including the celebrated Jeffrey Steele.
So that’s the Heart plus the Soul of Eric Church (minus the missing &). Taken separately both albums are slightly above average. However, one can make a mixtape of the best songs and have one kick-ass record.