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Eric Church - Desperate Man (Album Review)

Tuesday, 06 November 2018 Written by Simon Ramsay

If you’re having trouble getting a handle on ‘Desperate Man’, the follow-up to Eric Church’s exceptional 2015 effort ‘Mr Misunderstood’, you’re not alone. In fact, your struggles may stem from the fact that the reformed badboy of country doesn’t seem to have a clear plan for the album either. As inspired and classy as it is messy and undercooked, this record is a bona fide head-scratcher.

In truth, Church has always been more arena rock ‘n’ roll superstar, experimental maverick and heartland Americana singer-songwriter than flat out country musician. He may have the accented delivery of a vintage Nashville outlaw, but being able to circumvent pigeonholing as either a traditional or modern country act, while appealing to both audiences and beyond, is his forte. That said, where he and long-term producer Jay Joyce usually integrate all those elements with a seamless, endearing swagger, on ‘Desperate Man’ something isn’t quite right.

It’s been a difficult time for the man from Carolina. He had a very real brush with his own mortality thanks to a blood clot stemming from a birth defect, while he told Rolling Stone magazine that, following the shootings at last year’s Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas, where he’d performed a couple of days earlier, “something broke in me that night, and it still hasn’t healed.” In July, his brother Brandon passed away.

While direct references are scarce, the two tracks that bookend this record reflect its thematic direction. Opener The Snake is a simmering biblical parable for America’s two-party political system that also represents the evil in this world Church wants to escape. Such a position is clarified on closing number Drowning Man, where he longs to “drink away this crazy world” as “Lady Liberty turns her back and Uncle Sam just turns around.”

Seeking comfort in the familiar and intimate, some endearingly low key and soulful moments are this record’s strength. There’s Heart Like A Wheel’s sublime gospel tenderness and Some Of It’s mellifluous philosophical grace. Hippie Radio, meanwhile, is affluent with glowing nostalgic recollection and Monsters’ outstanding blend of prayer-like storytelling and explosive drama is a high point.

Had the whole album followed this stylistic suit it would have been great, but when Church starts going through the motions to cover all his bases things get erratic. On the plus side, throwing the ill-fitting title track into the mix renders cohesion irrelevant as it takes the rhythms, percussion and vibe of the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy For The Devil and turns it into a superb, slightly left-field, anthem bursting with mass appeal.

Not everything is that successful, though, and Church’s decision-making often lets him down as he either gets experimental for the sake of it or doesn’t follow the songs where they need to go. Hanging Around may lob electronics, organ squelches and giddy vocal blasts into a funky rhythmic groove, but that can’t disguise the fact it’s all style no substance. Higher Wire sounds like an undernourished demo and Solid begins with Pink Floyd atmospherics whose sole purpose is to enrich the rote track that follows.

Elsewhere, some songs seem to be heading in one direction only to instantly retreat to safer waters, and others finish so abruptly they feel unfinished. All of which elicits the feeling Church isn’t fully invested in what he’s doing and his heart and mind are, understandably, elsewhere. In reference to his previous quote, perhaps he needs to confront those issues, either artistically or personally, in order to fix himself and get back on a more focused track next time out.

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