Album Discussion: Eric Church’s “Desperate Man”

I’ve been an Eric Church fan from the beginning. Pre-Chief, the first album that finally got the country music community to stand up and take notice and changed his career trajectory. Pre-Mr. Misunderstood, the album that truly launched him into the consciousness of those who weren’t really into mainstream country but were willing to listen to something new.

Yeah, I’ve been there through the Carolina era, when he grew out his hair and was playing rock clubs after getting kicked off a Rascal Flatts’ tour for playing too loud and too long. Chief’s debut album, Sinners Like Me, was what got me started, and specifically the single “Guys Like Me.” I vividly and poignantly remember exactly where I was the first time I heard that song on the radio. While other artists like Carrie Underwood and the aforementioned Rascal Flatts were leaning to adult contemporary or singing for people who had their lives figured out, Church was blending country and rock for a sound unlike anything else on country radio. I was hooked from the beginning.

If this makes me sound like a snob about his music, well, it’s because I am, to be honest. I take pride in knowing I’ve been a fan since his career started. I like knowing that just I and a select few have that special, unrivaled connection with his music. He’s come a long way from playing Mr. Small’s to just 70 or so people.

It’s a good feeling as a fan knowing how he’s reached other people, broadened his audience, and is now an artist who simply transcends country music. And that’s what makes this new record so special and the pièce de résistance of Church’s career up to this point.

“Desperate Man,” the lead single and title track, is the center-piece of the album. When “Desperate Man” was first released back in July, listeners and fans knew the forthcoming would be something different yet familiar. To me, it felt like Chief was planning on getting back to his hardest influences without straying too far back into the progressive rock that permeated The Outsiders. “Desperate Man” pulls more from The Rolling Stones than Pantera. It’s groovier. Church’s solid country vocals blend with classic rock influence to create what does become the standard for the weird yet comfortable mood of the album.

Church’s vocals are key. He’s branched out to various styles and genres over his career, but his nasally, country vocals ensure that no matter what he sings, he’s singing country. Even songs like “Devil, Devil” or “That’s Damn Rock & Roll” off of The Outsiders still sound country because of his classical country delivery. And that’s what helps make Desperate Man a full-circle album. One foot in country, one foot in rock. Both boots pointed firmly forward to his own vision.

“The Snake” opens the album. A slow, swampy diatribe born on the swamp of the Louisiana bayou, it travels up the Mississippi and through the hills of Appalachia. “The Snake” plants its flag firmly in libertarian ideology. Both parties are gonna screw you, Church sings, and it’s best to just be left the hell alone. But it goes deeper than a simple protest song. The yelps from Church between the verses create a mood of desperation and bitterness at how the two party system has slowly started to crush the American Dream. That desperate mood, that desperate atmosphere, appears time and time again across the album. And it continues with the next track, “Hangin’ Around.”

“Hangin’ Around” is much more up-tempo than “The Snake.” But it still finds itself surrounded in desperation. This time it’s a woman making Church desperate. The groovy vibe of the song does a great job of matching what Church is singing about. The entire sound of the album is how I’d describe the way a woman can just make you feel so crazy and out-of-sorts.

But sometimes a woman makes you want to fight for her and give her your world. Which leads us into “Heart Like A Wheel.” It’s a simple song. Nothing earth-shattering. But its tailored for the man who finds himself with a woman way out of his league. He can’t promise her the world, but he can promise her loyalty and the open road.

And thus ends the first trilogy of the album. Those first three songs lean to a groovy, swampy place. Jerry Reed-esque. The Snowman shows up again later too. But the first three songs are a true trilogy of desperation and acceptance.

The next trilogy of songs takes the listener back Chief’s Sinners Like Me and Carolina days. “Some Of It,” “Monsters,” and “Hippie Radio” could all be smash singles and dropped onto any of Church’s previous albums. This is the familiar territory for Church fans. If the first three songs of Desperate Man are the new-Chief, the next three are that subtle hint that Church doesn’t forget where he came from.

What many people forget about Church is his ability to write clever hooks without resorting to the cliche or repetitiveness. Writing a clever hook has been a hallmark of the country genre since the beginning. Country stars became stars thanks to the songs. The on-stage performance and an artist’s charisma matter, of course, but it’s the songs that make an artist a legend.

“Some Of It” and “Monsters” both do a great job of planting a life lesson in the listener’s head without being preachy. To me, Church has always been one of those guys that’s telling you everything he knows. He’s giving you advice about things from women to life to love to family. He’s not forcing you to listen. But you know you’ll be better off if you do.

“Hippie Radio” may contain one of my favorite ever opening lines to one of Chief’s songs. “My daddy had a Pontiac on the beige-er side of yellow…” That’s so poignant and vivid. “Hippie Radio” is one of those full-circle songs that takes a listener on a journey throughout the narrator’s life, using his car and the songs on the radio. It’s in the vein of his unrecorded and unreleased “Old Friends, Old Whiskey, and Old Songs,” a song I was fortunate enough to hear him play live on his last swing through Pittsburgh.

Those first six songs showcase the extremes of Church’s music. Progressive and swampy on one hand. Traditional and country hook-driven on the other. The rest of the album is the spectacular explosion listeners get when Church draws from both wells.

“Higher Wire” is so weird. So out there. It finds Church testing his vocals to the limit. But it comes off so well. References to moonshine, snake ladies, bibles, and fire. It’s a jam. I have a feeling this is going to be the song least well-received by some fans and critics, but to me, this is where Church stands out from his contemporaries. It may not be my favorite song of his by any stretch, but try to imagine Chief recording an album without a deep, weird album cut like “Higher Wire.”

I’ve already made my feelings known about “Desperate Man” earlier in the piece. But again, this is the song the album is built around. It shows up just in time. If “Higher Wire” is a slow, groovy break in the action, “Desperate Man” is the shot of whiskey that picks things right back up. Many comparisons have been made to The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil,” and I’m all-in on that comparison. There’s even a little Keith Richards-esque guitar.

“Solid” starts off with a boozy, hazy sound. And it kind of stays that way. But the chorus really provides a loud, triumphant moment. The chorus on “Solid” is going to sound great live.

In fact, this whole album is great for the live setting. The instrumentation and various jams allow the band to really flex their muscles. And of course, concert-goers know the amount of energy they’re getting with a live performance from Eric Church.

The last two songs on the album, “Jukebox and A Bar” and “Drowning Man,” find Church drawing from two country heroes- Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. “Jukebox and A Bar” is pure-Haggard. A barroom and a jukebox. Where Haggard was at his best. And where Church once played hour upon hour of live shows. Life’s always going to throw everything it has at you. But a shot of whiskey, a beer, and a country song will never fail you. While many other country stars, both mainstream and Americana, go on and on and on about how they were influenced by more than just country music, Church is always paying homage to the genre he calls home. Sure, he leans to rock and stretches the boundaries of the genre, but he’s always been proud to call country his home.

The album concludes with “Drowning Man.” It may be one of my favorite songs Church has ever recorded. There’s a Waylon-esque attitude on display here. Life’s tough and crazy, Church sings. But he’s here. He’s got his woman, his friends, and some whiskey. “Drowning Man” is the 2018 cousin of “How ‘Bout You.” It’s blue-collar anthem. “Drowning Man” will strongly connect with Church’s longtime fans. And it’s a fitting way to end Desperate Man. That desperate mood is still there, but toward the end of “Drowning Man,” when the song briefly picks up pace, the listener knows a little better how to deal with life. All the questions may not be answered. Life’s still tough and will test you. But the listener is a little more prepared to get back into the world.

At this point, Eric Church is living as an artist bigger than genre. He resides in territory reserved for artists whose music transcends borders, transcends politics or trivial matters of taste. Where he goes from here, I’m not sure. But I’ll be along for the ride.

This very well could be Chief’s best album. But I’m not in the business of ranking his music. I’m a fan. From the beginning. I’ve grown as he’s grown. That connection will forever be there.