Saturday, March 26, 2016

Eric Church - Mr. Misunderstood

There can be no doubt that Eric Church is one of the biggest names in country music. In 2012, he picked up the CMA Award for Album of the Year, for the hit parade that was that year's Chief. If you count his feature on Keith Urban's "Raise 'Em Up," Church has notched six number one hits on the country charts throughout his career. He's not just successful, either. Church is one of the few mainstream country artists that tends to get respect from non-country publications or casual country listeners. In 2013, Grantland (RIP) put Church's "Springsteen" on the bracket as one of the few true country songs in their "Best Song of the Millennium" tournament, the other being Miranda Lambert's "The House That Built Me." (Both songs got demolished in the voting by much shittier songs—Rihanna's "We Found Love" against Church and Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" against Lambert"—but still.)

One of the reasons for Church's ability to transcend genre lines is presentation and marketing. Despite the fact that he is, by almost every definition, a Nashville insider, Church has always been able to sell himself as a rebel and a trend-breaker. He even titled his Chief follow-up The Outsiders, a tag that wasn't even all that absurd, given the album's prog-metal opening track, a lengthy spoken-word indictment of the Nashville scene, and various other weird left-turns. Like Zac Brown before him, Church wants to be viewed as an uncompromising artist, but it's sometimes difficult to see him that way when he's benefited so heavily from the embrace of country radio.

The problem is, in recent years, Church's desire to be the outsider on the inside has actually conflicted with his talents. Chief was a great record because it knew what it was. A straight-ahead set of country-rock songs, Chief didn't shy away from the genre clichés of mainstream country—summer nights, beers with the bros, Jack Daniels, and Jesus—but didn't fuel them into songs that sounded like cardboard cutouts either. Instead, Chief rocked harder than just about any modern rock record has. Sonically, Church wasn't exactly taking cues from Springsteen—despite naming a song after him—but he was mirroring Bruce in terms of confidence and showmanship. The Outsiders, with all its experimental, arena-sized bombast, muddied the waters of what made Church special. It was fitting that the most buzzed about show on his subsequent arena tour was the one where the entire crew and band got the stomach flu and Church had to do the entire concert acoustic, without all of the flashing lights and production value. Most of Church's fellow radio country stalwarts—Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, and Jason Aldean, to name a few—would have cancelled. Instead, Church used the show to indulge his inner solo singer/songwriter.

Mr. Misunderstood, the album Church dropped by surprise on the day of the CMA Awards, seems to take cues from that unplanned solo arena show. Backing off the prog-rock and metal influences of The Outsiders, Church strips things down to their bare essentials on Mr. Misunderstood and ends up making his best album yet. For those who would write off Church based on his mainstream country tag, I'd recommend a change of heart for this album. Mr. Misunderstood still boasts Church's patent Carolina southern drawl, but is otherwise not much of a country album. Instead, Church draws his inspiration from roots and heartland rock, with Springsteen in particular being a big spiritual presence. Mr. Misunderstood is no more of a mainstream country record than the Gaslight Anthem's American Slang was.

Indeed, classic rock and Americana seem to be Church's muses on this record. The shape-shifting title track opens the album with soft acoustic finger-picking and steel guitar, throwing out references to Bob Segar, Elvis Costello, and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy within the first minute. The first part of the song is a pep-talk of sorts for a kid who might feel out of place right now, but will eventually find his niche. "Your buddies get their rocks off to top 40 radio/But you love your daddy's vinyl," Church sings, before proclaiming "One day you'll lead the charge, you'll lead the band." Rather than just being an anti-bullying song, or a clichéd numbed about "being yourself," "Mr. Misunderstand" kicks up the tempo and morphs into a narrative barnstormer, charting Church's journey from being the misunderstood kid in the back of the class to being the rock star in front of the arena crowd. The rapid-fire lyricism in this second section, about a girl named "Alabama Hannah" who turned the narrator onto "Back Porch Pickers, Jackson Pollock, and gin," is so reminiscent of early Springsteen—and so different from the shallower lyrical work of the world-conquering Chief—that it almost single-handedly justifies Church's "misfit" image.

Mr. Misunderstood isn't about chasing cred, though; it's about serving up great songs. Other than the slightly awkward blues shuffle of "Chattanooga Lucy," virtually every song on this record could be considered one of the best in Church's catalog. The gospel-infused "Mistress Named Music," the whiskey-drenched breakup ballad "Mixed Drinks About Feelings" (featuring a strong, vocal feature from Susan Tedeschi), and the Friday Night Lights-esque "Round Here Buzz" are all songs that boast stellar writing, nuanced storytelling, and memorable melodies. It's probably safe to label the latter as a less effective version of the last album's peak, "Give Me Back My Hometown," but the core image—of the heartbroken narrator drinking alone under the bleachers, while the whole town hits the road for an away game—is an effective example of small town solitude.

The Springsteen influence rears its head on "The Knives of New Orleans." An anthemic number that will (likely) become a main set closer for Church's next tour, "Knives" is actually a song about a man on the run from the law. "Tonight, every man with a TV is seeing a man with my clothes and face/In the last 30 minutes, I've gone from a person of interest to a full-blown manhunt underway," Church sings in the second verse. We never actually learn the crime that the narrator committed, or whether or not he even gets away, but that withholding of key details works to elevate the tension and nervous energy of the song. Springsteen always excelled at comparably microcosmic songwriting, especially when he was getting into the heads of lawbreakers. "Atlantic City," "Stolen Car," "State Trooper," Johnny 99": those were all songs about criminals that were great largely because of what they didn't tell us. What was the "favor" the narrator was talking about in "Atlantic City"? Was that plea of "Mr. state trooper, please don't stop me" answered? Why did "Johnny 99" fade out before we heard the judge's verdict? In a story, the details you leave out are as important as the ones you include, and that statement is even truer in songwriting. Being a student of one of the greats has improved Church's writing considerably on this record.

The last handful of songs on Mr. Misunderstood continue the album's master-class in songwriting. "Kill a Word," for instance, is the kind of song that is very difficult to pull off, an anti-bullying number about eliminating negativity and cruelty from the world by ripping certain words out of the lexicon. On paper, the idea reads as cheesy, and it sort of is, but the way Church and co-writers Luke Dick and Jeff Hyde fit the concept seamlessly into the melody of the song is nothing short of impressive. Some songs come across as streams of consciousness, and I love the spontaneous feel of that kind of work. Hell, I personally usually prefer to write songs that way. Still, there's something to be said for a lyric that has clearly been meticulously put together, and this is one of those. Standout backup vocal work from Andrea Davidson and Rhiannon Giddens, fresh off her stint with The New Basement Tapes, only elevates the song further.

The best song on Mr. Misunderstood, though, is the one that most closely recalls Church's previous personal best, "Springsteen." That Chief standout soared for how it tied a summer romance (and the subsequent breakup) to the Boss records that soundtracked it all. "Record Year" hits a similar groove (pun intended), with the narrator retreating into his vinyl collection to get over heartbreak. With references to everyone from Waylon Jennings and George Jones to Stevie Wonder and (I think) Frank Turner, "Record Year" isn't compelling just because of the scavenger hunt of artist, song, and album callouts, but also for how perfectly it captures what music can be to someone in their hardest moments. "I'm either gonna get over you, or I'm gonna blow out my ears," Church sings in the chorus. Who hasn'tbeen there?

I've always liked Eric Church, ever since his 2006 song "Lightning"—about a death row inmate reflecting on his mistakes in a darkened prison cell—was an iTunes discovery download back in the day. (His clear fandom for Bruce, of course, hasn't hurt his case.) With that said, though, Mr. Misunderstood is the first album from Church where I've viewed him not just as "good, for mainstream country," but as "great, period." With strong songwriting, restrained arrangements, potent vocal work, and terrific production from Jay Joyce (clearly a classic rock fan, based on his throwback work both here and on the last Wallflowers LP), Mr. Misunderstood is a deep, nuanced album that will appeal to fans of folk, country, or rock and roll in equal measure. Church has always wanted to be an outsider, but this record is the first clear evidence that he might be ready to leave Nashville's inner circle behind. If his songwriting only continues to grow as a result, then we're in for a real treat.

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