This album was a Beyonce Drop, mailed as a physical copy to Eric Church’s fan club members, and released a couple of days later on iTunes. The single, and the title track, became a more conventional single, sung at the CMA awards. The week between the album drop and the CMA had a number of pieces of common wisdom emerge, most of which seem to be fairly uncontroversial: the Jeff Tweedy reference in the first song was a little awkward, that the album was a little shopworn compared to the ambition of his last album Outsiders, and that he was still working through a musical schtick that was lost somewhere between Little Feat and Bon Jovi.
I agree with most of these, although I suspect I like Jeff Tweedy less than most music critics, and that the shopworn quality could be forgiven if this was considered a kind of stopgap between more official releases (it could almost be an EP) and I hear a lot less Bon Jovi in this than I do Church’s continual, almost single-minded desire to revive mid-’70s Southern rock. But this attempt has moved away–while other country singers close to his age and station have put the rock on the shelf, and are now trying to revive mid-1990s R&B wholeheartedly.
I wouldn’t want Church to do ’90s R&B, though. When I say southern rock, it is something in his DNA, but it has shifted and moved, had other interests and other works grafted onto it, so it becomes almost an attitude, or a desire more than a formal style. One of the great things about Church is that the style is more important than an explicit connection to nostalgia. The swagger swings hard enough that any strict fidelity to a genre moves out of orbit. That’s why the Tweedy reference is so awkward: it suggests a kind of hipness that Church has yet to fundamentally care about. Plus, Tweedy never swaggers.
I want to emphasize the swagger: how he sings about having no regrets on “Knives of New Orleans”, which could be about heartbreak or murder, and the feelings between the two not having any significant difference. Or, on the swamp rock, propulsive, percussion heavy “Chattanooga Lucy”, whose significant pause between how he sings “to get some and how he finishes that up with kick drum” is delightfully flirtatious.
This is the kind of emotion that we expect from Church, but this might also be the most sentimental album he has released. “Mixed Drinks About Feelings With You”, which has an excellent George Jones title and a delicate, almost plodding cocktail piano, might be the saddest ballad he has worked through, made sadder by Susan Tedeschi. Church’s ability to choose excellent singers to temper his macho excesses can also be found in how Rhiannon Giddens sings on “Kill a Word”. The former member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops is having a banner year; between this, which I hope will be a massive single, and her solo album.
Most of the songs here are about Church, or are more abstract portraits of conventional desire, but it should be noted that the album has two moving songs about growing up. “One”, about the exhaustion of the road; a worn out trope, but how he talks about “one arm around my baby, and one arm around my boys” prepares us for the last song on the album, “Three Year Old”. A genuinely moving, better produced, and under written list song about what he is learnt from his child, it suggests the only thing new about the album. Luke Bryan, Justin Moore, Dierks Bentley, and Jake Owen all have children, and there is little conversation about what it means to be a father. “My Three Old” could be stronger, but it’s the one new thing, and a welcome change on the album.
It is not that Church is Mr Missunderstood. Anyone who got this album in the mail, or who downloaded it the next day, would know what this was saying. There are few suprises on an Eric Church album, but it includes excellent vocals, sophisticated musical choices, and strong storytelling chops. It’s a good thing these things haven’t changed.