You know why I like Eric Church so much these days?
It isn’t just that he’s doesn’t really do that “modern radio country song” that I don’t actually like or think adds value to popular culture.
That’s not all it’s about. To think only that way would be shortsighted of me.
It’s because he’s writing such enlightened and clear-headed personal songs now that you just can’t help but love this dude.
Listen to “Heart on Fire” from Church’s new release, Heart & Soul, and I bet you’ll love how passionately he pays tribute to the things that have shaped him, from rock and roll songs to the women he’s loved to his old truck sputtering down Roosevelt Road.
That’s a human being. He’s got emotions attached to all his memories, and they all set his heart on fire.
Eric Church has plenty of heart and soul on his new album, and the way he expresses those things makes the record what I think is one of his all-time best.
So, Where’d This Come From?
A lot of readers of the Musical Record blog really enjoyed my outsider’s take on Eric Church’s Desperate Man.
I guess that’s because I am not in the 2021 country scene and really just walked into Eric Church’s discography with almost no knowledge or expectation. That album just struck the right chord for me.
Now, with Heart & Soul: so, Church fans had heard about this for months. Ever since reports surfaced of his now almost mythical January 2020 recording sessions in the North Carolina mountains, fans have wondered what exactly he was making up there.
Church himself said he had gone up to an old restaurant to turn it into a recording studio and write and record at least one new song every day for 28 days. There were stretches when he didn’t sleep. He’d write or co-write a few songs in just two days, pushing himself to the edge mentally and physically.
But the story is that testing himself like that gave him a creative edge–or at least a different kind of creativity–that he might not have found otherwise.
After well over a year of hearing about it, we’re finally gotten the finished product of a triple album.
It came out in three parts last month. Produced by Jay Joyce and featuring longtime co-writers such as Casey Beathard and Jeff Hyde, Heart and Soul are now available to the public, while the six-song vinyl & is an exclusive for Church Choir members.
So now you know.
Let’s get into Heart & Soul.
Can I keep it concise? Not likely.
Oh, and just when you started vaguely wondering if I was going to discuss only Heart and Soul, I came up with an answer: yes, I have &, and yes, we’ll discuss it, so just relax for a minute.
I also haven’t read other country music reviews in preparation for this. They’re just my thoughts as I listened.
Humans find the world much easier to understand when they categorize and label things.
There’s plenty going on in the 24 songs on Heart & Soul, but if we can separate the volumes thematically, then Heart is the one where Church opens up and really bears his, you know, heart.
And that isn’t just because there are three songs with “heart” right in the title. I mean the subjects he’s dealing with are about love, feeling, conviction, memories, and passion.
“Russian Roulette” is an experience we’ve all lived: hearing a random song on the radio and having some sad or unpleasant memories come flooding back. As my friend Kyle rightly pointed out, it’s like a counterpart, or even an opposite, of 2011’s “Springsteen.”
Heart’s lead single, “Stick That in Your Country Song,” is a track written not by Church, and not even in 2020, but by Davis Naish and Jeffrey Steele in 2015.
They composed the song as little vignettes about what life is really like in today’s America: the poverty and urban blight of Detroit and Baltimore; the soldier coming back from war; the teacher working hard to help students succeed.
Put that stuff in a number-one country song, Church challenges us. Stick that real slice-of-life in a song and sell it so the world can know.
Tell you what, he may not have written it, but you and I both hear the passion in Church’s voice when he sings this one. It’s familiar Church territory but still fresh, and it hits hard in 2015 or today. Church knows about the little guys, and he wants you to know, too.
Hey, man, it’s a lot of heart on this first record, and it just keeps going.
“Bunch of Nothing,” a personal favorite of mine, is Church giving some country boy life advice to a long-faced dude who’s feeling a bit bad about things. He’ll show him how to bass fish, tune a guitar, and have a hell of a Saturday night. Listen, it’s an awesome song.
And by the way, you don’t always need lyrical poetry to get a point across, as we hear with Heart’s closer, “Love Shine Down.”
Hey, I’ve made some mistakes, but I’m ready to be good now, so come love me, this song says. That’s a lot of us, isn’t it?
And now for the Church Choir vinyl exclusive, &. Let’s get into it.
With the opener of “Through My Ray Bans,” Church turns his incredible tribute-writing powers onto his fans. It’s a touching ode to all those people who gather in camaraderie to hear him play live.
This is the type of mid-tempo ballad that Church does so well. Who’s going to fault him for this song? He’s a guy who loves his fans. And while I often prefer Church when he’s banging out some rock and roll song, this is quality stuff here.
“Doing Life with Me” is another bare-all salute, this time, it seems, to Church’s family, or maybe his bandmates? It’s a sensitive ballad where he once again isn’t too proud to show the world the things that mean something to him.
“Do Side” kicks things up into cool rock and roll territory. It’s got a groovy 70s feel with some outlaw acoustic throughout. This has a different feel from the rest of Heart & Soul, and believe me, Choir members are lucky to have this song. More of this in the future, Church!
On side 2, we have “Kiss Her Goodbye,” “Mad Man,” and “Lone Wolf.” The standout here is “Mad Man,” and here’s why I applaud the song maybe the most out of everything on &.
Eric Church is clearly an optimist, if his songs are any evidence of that. No matter what hardships he’s had in life, his songs portray a man who’s driven to keep doing his best and make the best of it.
“Mad Man” flirts with the idea of giving in. This angry guy got dumped and is just seconds away from losing it. Church even says you best leave him alone.
But then the song does something subtle, all from one line: Church sings that this guy is a mad man, but he’s still holding on. I think Church loves this guy for the pain he’s in. The song explodes at the end with a soulful electric guitar solo and Church kind of shouting.
Man, this is crazy stuff: one of the best songs on the triple album.
Eric Church is a smart, insightful guy, and he knows very well that titling the third record Soul is about more than just the lyrical themes. The songs are also done in that style: soul music!
One or two of you might remember that what I loved about Desperate Man was how Church got into the R&B/soul genres with songs like “Heart Like a Wheel” and “Solid.”
That’s a personal musical taste of mine, but it’s relevant in this review because Church does soul music incredibly well. The transition from the more mainstream country sounds of his past to doing the music he wants to do now would seem to be complete, and I am eating it up.
In any case, the soul of Eric Church can be found all over the place here, particularly in the record’s opener, the R&B “Rock & Roll Found Me.”
It features the great Joanna Cotten and is about how Church sees himself as having been a kind of misfit kid who’s life lit up when the music found him and set him down the path he’s traveling right now. Music’s the thing that lifted his soul and carried him into the future.
I assume everyone else is the same, but I feel that soul in Church’s voice when he sings this stuff. A great song is more than how the instruments sound or what the lyrics say. It’s also about how the performance makes you feel what the singer feels, and Church does that (and, I would suspect, with not much effort, since this is material he has probably lived).
In life, you can also find soul in people’s personal relationships. There’s two pristine tributes to a woman in “Look Good and You Know It” and “Bright Side Girl.”
You know, they’re about Church appreciating her for everything she is: how she looks and what she does for him. That’s a real human.
I love “Break It Kind of Guy” because it’s that straightforward kind of southern-rock that Church will do once in a while. It reminds me of “Hangin’ Around,” one of my favorite Church songs, and it’s upbeat, carefree, and a lot of fun.
We move into the third act with a handful of poignant love songs, “Hell of a View,” “Where I Wanna Be,” and the acoustic “Jenny,” inspired by a broken generator up in those Carolina mountains.
Another of my favorites since it was first released last year is “Bad Mother Trucker,” the title of which I don’t really care for, but make no mistake, this is quality “new” Eric Church. It’s blatantly soul and R&B in a style reminiscent of Aretha Franklin, whom Church references here.
The album closes with “Lynyrd Skynyrd Jones,” an acoustic story song that offers longtime listeners a fun Easter egg. This one is not among my favorites to listen to, although the workmanship is fine as always.
Heart & Soul surprises in many ways. For an album that came out of an isolated 28-day set of recording sessions up in the mountains, it’s more polished than what I expected.
I thought maybe Church would come down the mountain with some roots-type country blues, and this ain’t exactly that. The album is a melting pot of sounds, from country to R&B to soul.
All the emotions and passion derived from the simple act of Church and his co-writers getting words out on paper 24 times and then recording them (it would seem there are four more songs they made that aren’t here).
Where the record as a whole falls a bit short for me is in its continual revisiting of certain themes.
I get that each record is devoted to a theme.
Here’s what I mean.
I imagine when you’re forcing yourself to write a song a day no matter what, especially in the abundance of a triple album, the urgency can either work heavily in your favor or not. There were a few times where one song seemed a little too similar to another.
There’s a lot of love songs here that express essentially the same sentiment, but I don’t want to harp on that.
It may not even be a fault.
Taken individually, each song is what it is, and Church hits the mark more often than not. He pushed himself to be creative, and this is the product. He’s an artist who feels things and makes no bones about expressing that to the world.
He does the most earnest kind of songwriting I’ve heard in a long time from a musician, and he and his band should be proud of what they accomplished here.
What’s the best overall collection of songs of the three? Heart, to me.
But give these records a few spins, and you may just learn something about what you yourself value in this world.