Country Artist Offers Response to America’s Struggles
A lot has happened since country artist Eric Church released his last album, Mr. Misunderstood, in 2015. In addition to a complete political shift, shootings and natural disasters, such as the Las Vegas shootings and Hurricane Florence, have widened the divisions that separate our nation.
It makes sense, then, that Church’s songwriting has adapted to the new climate. Desperate Man, released last month, seeks to provide a relief from the chaos which serves as a backdrop to the album’s release. While Church experiments with a variety of sources and genres to inspire his music, his album actually winds back the clock instead of moving it forward. One can observe this fondness for the “good old days” in the lyrics of Church’s earlier oeuvre, but it has never affected his music so profoundly until now.
Church’s album has an edge–this much is evident from “The Snake,” the gritty opening track. The song combines acoustic guitar and Church’s distinctive nasal voice to weave a story about two snakes plotting to thwart humanity; a condemnatory analogy of the gridlock partisanship which plagues American politics. This raw leading track frames the rest of the album, which focuses on how Church uses faith and music through times of struggle and confusion.
Church’s reliance on faith as a means of working through conflict surfaces in multiple songs on the album. In “Monsters,” he recalls his childhood fear of monsters, and how he turned to light for comfort. When he feels fear as an adult, Church prays to God as his “new turning to the light.” The theme reappears in “Solid” as Church affectionately describes the foundation which centers him, despite pressure for him to “put my faith in something new.” Ending each chorus with the line, “It’s you that keeps me solid,” Church suggests that God offers him the motivation and support to live his life albeit the struggles he faces.
In addition to faith, Church also offers music as a way to cope with struggle. In “Hippie Radio,” Church waxes nostalgic about driving and listening to the radio throughout his life. The lyrics name-drop several artists which emphasize the changes in music from Church’s childhood to fatherhood, but notes the presence of music as a constant companion to life. The nostalgic tone and easy guitar makes this song especially poignant and the high point of the album.
Church depicts music as a companion to life again in the final two tracks of the album, “Jukebox in a Bar” and “Drowning Man.” In both songs Church insists that the only way he can solve his problems is going to a bar, drinking, and surrounding himself with music. “Jukebox in a Bar” laments that heartbreak can only be healed the two things the title suggests, while “Drowning Man” pleads with the world to “let my baby sing” so the speaker can numb the troubles of his middle America, working-class life. Church’s emphasis on using music to weather tough times contributes to the message of the album as a whole: to offer nostalgic comfort in chaotic and concerning times.
The album ultimately struggles to execute both roles which Church intends it to play: a cultural critique and a top-selling country album. Songs like “Some of It,” which feels more like the work of Luke Bryan circa 2014 than Church himself, will certainly garner significant popularity; however, the nostalgic song does not pack as much of a lyrical punch, due to barely comprehensible lines like, “I know I don’t probably know what I think I do.” This might sound great with a Southern drawl, but offers little depth. “The Snake,” on the other hand, illustrates the dysfunctional components of our political system with a retelling of the Fall of Man, but its four-minute running time demands an acquired taste to sit through and enjoy.
Other songs, however, match the Eric Church of previous albums. One could fool a casual Church fan into thinking that “Higher Wire,” “Monsters,” and “Drowning Man” were less famous efforts already recorded by the singer-songwriter.
The album really earns its spunk, however, in Church’s imitation of older styles which can be sampled in tracks like “Solid” and “Desperate Man.” “Solid” opens with a synthesizer and electric guitar collaboration that evokes Pink Floyd before Church’s vocals take him back to his more signature touches. The titular track of the album features unmistakable nods to the Rolling Stones hit “Sympathy for the Devil,” complete with a conga drum and a falsetto riff on a neutral syllable. These throwbacks and the lack of modern pop influences on the album indicate that Church is done with Top 40 crossover songs such as “Give Me Back My Hometown,” which gave him name recognition among audiences outside of country.
Eric Church’s Desperate Man seeks to make sense of a confused country in a chaotic time. Unfortunately, the album doesn’t quite live up to the high bar of its predecessor, Mr. Misunderstood, which won CMA Album of the Year in 2015. In typical Church fashion, Desperate Man does not seek to fit in with other contemporary country; it does not ignore the nation’s divides with overly patriotic lyrics or drift into modern pop. Rather, it emphasizes faith and music as tools to offer solace in hard times, and looks to the past for guidance about the future.
Jack Lyons is a sophomore studying Theology and Journalism, and he has recently been engrossed by a video of a chameleon he found a couple of days ago. Follow him on Twitter at @jacklyonsnd and get in touch with him at email@example.com