It’s almost unbelievable that I am listening to a contemporary country music artist for a blog post. I’ve known about Eric Church for a long time. I first heard of him in 2014, from a friend at the time who was just getting into him.
But Eric Church and I didn’t meet up again until probably 2019, when I was properly exposed to his music through my buddy Kyle.
With any mainstream “greatest hits” of Eric Church songs–the ones you’d expect to hear on country radio–someone like me will quickly go for a hard pass. Up to this point in my life, my general attitude toward songs that sound like “Before She Does,” “Hell on the Heart,” and “Drink in My Hand” has been “They’re too twangy, and I feel like I’ve heard them all somewhere before.”
But by and large, those songs are early Eric Church, the Eric Church who needed to break through somehow, some way. Having gone through most of Church’s discography, I still feel the same about most, but not all, of his earlier work.
I have to separate personal opinion from objective analysis, though. I don’t prefer Church’s early material, but I can’t knock the talent that went into those first few albums. The sound just isn’t for me.
Church’s songwriting, however, has always been something else. Eric Church has a lot of heart, and you can find it uniquely expressed in lyrics throughout his discography.
The Game Changer
We now come to Church’s 2018 album Desperate Man.
This was the first Church record I intentionally listened to. I wanted to see what exactly made Kyle such a monster fan of this guy.
My neurons must have started sending rapid-fire messages immediately upon hearing the opening track.
I understand the connections between music and emotions. I instantly knew the song’s sonic landscape and how it made me feel. I had heard that music before, a lot, but not from mainstream country singer Eric Church. More like, from my own music that I listen to every day, which couldn’t be further from twenty-first-century American country music.
But, like Kyle said, “That ain’t country music. It’s somethin’ else.”
Indeed, it is something else.
So, I actually sat down to study the record, and it’s been my musical focus lately.
I believe I have some worthy thoughts to add to the Eric Church conversation of other country music reviews, since I am a true outsider here.
Here is my album review of Eric Church’s Desperate Man.
Always Start Strong
It’s common wisdom at this point that, when it comes to creative works, you always want to kick things off with your A material, and Church doesn’t disappoint here. He does, however, offer a surprise, the one that got my synapses firing.
According to Church, “The Snake” is an allegory for politics in America, specifically his mistrust of the country’s two major political parties. This is a dense song; there’s so much here to digest that I really can’t do the song justice by writing about it. You should really go listen to it.
The gut-punching aspect of “The Snake” for me is its roots in acoustic blues music, which flows through my body like life-giving blood. I see how Church’s moody, apocalyptic guitar playing traces a lineage all the way back to Mississippi Delta guys like Robert Johnson and Skip James.
And we’ve heard swaths of Church’s blues guitar before. Check out “Jack Daniels,” “Broke Record,” and “Chattanooga Lucy.” Actually, check out Eric Church’s 10 best deep tracks from Rolling Stone; well worth your effort if you, like me, don’t prefer the poppy sounds of country radio.
I hadn’t heard those songs I mentioned prior to listening to Desperate Man, so “The Snake” really jumped out at me.
If we’re talking about the blues: in what better genre can you couch lyrics about the cunning, duplicitous nature of the American political system? With the rattlesnake and copperhead making secret deals for their own benefit, the only losers are the common people.
“The Snake” is a song that’s as threatening as it is subdued. Here’s proof that a strong opener doesn’t necessarily have to be a rock-banger.
We next go to “Hangin’ Around,” which is one of my favorites from the album. It’s a short Southern rocker, but that’s no knock on it. This one’s a killer: straightforward lyrics, a good beat. It’s perfect.
Don’t Go Soft in the Middle
If I were a musician making an album, I would struggle to keep listeners engaged from probably the third through the seventh songs. That’s usually the middle of a record, and it’s where the deep cuts are often found.
There’s no such struggle here with Eric Church, though, because we’re now listening to “Heart Like a Wheel.” It’s another surprise for me: a gospel-infused ballad about two mismatched lovers who are going to try things out anyway.
Did I say “gospel”?
I surely did. Church’s longtime musical collaborator Joanna Cotten adds some tasteful backing vocals here, and they are simultaneously refreshing and retro. They take me right back to Paul Simon’s gospel song “Loves Me Like a Rock” and every other 50s-style gospel music I’ve ever heard.
The result is that “Heart Like a Wheel” is a perfect chillout song from the same man who sang “Guys Like Me.” What am I saying? I mean that we’re three songs into Desperate Man, and I can already see how Eric Church has grown and matured as an artist.
“Some Of It” and What Follows
Of course, the record also needs the more radio-friendly sounds of “Some Of It,” for example, but don’t interpret the song’s catchy chorus as a sign that this track is superficial in any way. There’s a ton to explore here. Let’s look at it.
Coming into this album as an outsider, I already know that “Some Of It” is a Church Choir favorite. When I first heard it, I didn’t like it. To me, the song was just another single. But I felt that way because I heard the song without actually listening to it. I hadn’t read anything negative about the song from anyone else, so I went back to examine it more closely.
Church co-wrote “Some Of It” with fellow album guitarist Jeff Hyde, Bobby Pinson, and Clint Daniels. The lyrics are structured as concentrated bits of knowledge and wisdom, as told by someone who, even at middle age, has already learned plenty about human nature and growing up.
These are things you know but probably rarely or never think about. Some examples: everybody makes mistakes. Don’t demand things. Be faithful. Money doesn’t mean what you think it means. When you have a woman, treat her right and don’t be an idiot.
Then, the chorus, the one that had put me off the first few times, explains that you don’t learn all these lessons at the same time or in the same ways. You can read about them, you can make mistakes and learn them that way, but mostly, you just need time to take them all in.
What’s fascinating about “Some Of It” is that Church’s co-writers had a lot of the song written when Church came onboard with it, as Pinson himself recalls. But the writers felt that the sentiments in the lyrics were perfect for Church to sing, and so they were. And even though “Some Of It” almost didn’t make it on Desperate Man, the cards eventually played out that Church decided to include it.
The result was a number 1 single. More importantly, however, “Some Of It” is a song that gets under people’s skins in all the best ways. It makes you think about your own life, the lessons you’ve learned, and also the ones you have yet to learn. And Church’s straight-talking delivery was indeed perfect for this, as the song’s co-writers predicted.
Even just two years after release, “Some Of It” really is classic Eric Church. My opinion of the song has improved a lot over the last few months. This is honest, bare-all expression, and it hits hard if you want it to.
The theme of advice continues with the next few songs. “Monsters” is an emotional ballad that juxtaposes the fears of children versus those of adults, and how a wise parent handles those two worlds. It has so much heart that I don’t mind its more country-ish sounds.
We stay in this emotional place a little longer with “Hippie Radio,” in which Church recounts memories of listening to music in his dad’s old Pontiac. It’s a nice story that sees the boy narrator grow up and find a girl and get married and have a son. And he does it all while driving in that same Pontiac, the one constant in an ever-changing life.
It’s the feels with this one, folks. This is poignant, quality songwriting.
The final song of what I would consider Desperate Man’s second act is “Higher Wire,” a love song that’s unusual in Church’s raised vocal delivery. It’s soulful once again, and the song overall has an aura about it, like being in a foggy room where everything is a little blurry. It’s perfect, though. It achieves what I think Church is going for: that fuzzy feeling you get when you’re really in love and can’t totally describe it.
Finish Like It’s Your Last Chance
We’re heading toward the finish now, but we’re not just cutting corners to get there: we now come to the album’s title track and lead single.
“Desperate Man” definitely sounds like a single, but in this case, that isn’t a fault. What stands out to me about this song is the juxtaposition of the anxiety-ridden lyrics and up-tempo music. Like “The Snake,” I see the influence of the blues here.
Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy has said many times that not all blues music is sad, and that’s true. But one hallmark of the genre is singing about life’s most challenging struggles while playing music you can dance to. It’s the most bitter of ironies, saved for the darkest lyrical subjects.
That’s kind of the story with “Desperate Man.” Church has said he was inspired to write the song after the 2017 shooting at Las Vegas’s Route 91 Harvest country music festival, where he himself had played two nights earlier.
But the song isn’t about mass murder or victims of the tragedy. It’s about the cards being against you, being behind the 8 ball, and yet going on with every ounce of strength you have left.
Co-written with Ray Wylie Hubbard, the song uses minimalistic lyrics to describe, for example, how a fortune teller told the narrator he has no future, but he’s going on regardless. He has no excuse, no logical reason for thinking things will turn out well, but he’s a desperate man, and he’s going to try anyway.
With the catchy chorus and Church’s strong vocals, “Desperate Man” is a song about hope. Hope for a better future is what Church ultimately got out of the Las Vegas shooting, and it makes for one of the best songs on the album.
Church brings this confidence into the next song, “Solid,” a soulful, mid-tempo track about staying strong in a world that wants to keep knocking you down. Church sings about drawing his strength from old things that are long past their prime. His old 501 jeans may not look like much to you, but to him, they mean plenty.
“Solid” is a song about staying faithful to yourself and not letting the world bend you to its ways. That’s a message we can all get behind.
Speaking of finding comfort in the pleasures of a simpler time, Church shows us one more side of that diamond in yet another chillout song: “Jukebox and a Bar.” It’s a straightforward point: the world’s got a ton of crazy technology now, but nothing can make Church feel better than hanging in a bar, drinking beer with some quality tunes on the jukebox.
It’s a throwback to retro America, the era of all of Church’s musical heroes, and it makes me feel nostalgic for a time that I didn’t even get to experience. Church lets those emotions out when he performs, and if you’re open to them, they can infect you, too.
Like Bob Dylan said, the only thing that matters is that a song moves you.
Desperate Man’s closer is “Drowning Man,” which to me channels Merle Haggard as strongly as anything Church has ever done. For all his success as a country music star, Merle never forgot about his humble beginnings. He uplifted and honored the lowly and the working class throughout his songs, as did Johnny Cash and so many other American musical icons I could name.
“Drowning Man” carries on that tradition by taking up the case of the common American, the ones who work hard every day and yet don’t see much for their efforts. Even Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty are looking the other way here.
So, the drowning man drinks his troubles away with $50 of whisky, reveling in the world where he’s comfortable and caring nothing for the lives of the rich. The song is both disturbing in its reflection of reality and yet reassuring in its praise of the “lowly.”
One major thought I take away from Desperate Man is that Eric Church’s performances are always tasteful. In no part of this album did I feel that he went overboard with his vocals or guitar playing. In fact, there were parts of the record where I expected Church to sing louder or with more gusto, and yet he consistently keeps things under control.
Church gives each song exactly what it requires and nothing more. He’s quiet when he needs to be and more exuberant when a song calls for it. I sense a lot of musical and lyrical intelligence throughout the album, and that made it an unusual and surprising listen.
I admit it’s still somewhat of a jolt for me to listen to contemporary country music. However, as I explored in “Why Do We Like the Music We Like?” I know that simple exposure can get me the rest of the way with this genre.
This is the most modern music I have written about so far on Musical Record, but it really was a rewarding experience.
Eric Church’s Desperate Man is a fine album by one of the most unique and trailblazing artists on the scene today.
It gets an A+ from me.