Song Review: Eric Church, “Desperate Man”

For some, this song would a “desperate” attempt to remain relevant. For Eric Church, it’s just Eric being Eric.

After “Round Here Buzz” earned itself an #2 peak on Billboard’s airplay chart, Church quietly closed the book on the Mr. Misunderstood era and disappeared from the country music scene, presumably to work on his next musical project. Given how Mr. Misunderstood had been dropped into the hands of his fans without any advance warning, people knew that Church could explode back onto the scene at any time, and so the world waited with bated breath for his return. The wait ended last week, as Church announced the release of a new single “Desperate Man” to headline a new album with the same name. I’m not really sure what I expected to get from this song, but a bouncy sad song backed by a psychedelic disco-tinged mix was definitely not what I thought was coming.I’m not sure how good this song really is, but it’ll certainly get people’s attention.

Disco/R&B influences have been popping up a fair amount in country music recently, but non have had the strong retro vibe of “Desperate Man”—this mix feels ripped straight from a vinyl record from 1975. From the bongos and affected percussion to the waka-chicka feel of the guitars to the vocal screams and “ooh-oohs,” everything here feels transplanted from another era of sound. (However, it’s not all from the same era, as the spacious electric guitar seems to have been borrowed from Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives.) While the upbeat atmosphere seems like a poor fit for the melancholy writing at first glance, the bright instrument tones and faster tempo generate so much positive energy that it completely overwhelms the lyrical sentiment and turns the song into a rollicking good time. The narrator might be having a hard time getting over a lost love, but you’re too busy busting a move to care.

So much is made of Church’s “outsider” persona that his talent as a pure vocalist is mostly overlooked. The song traps Church exclusively in his upper and forces him to shout-sing a fair chunk of the song, but he does so without skipping a beat, adding intensity without ever sounding uncomfortable. Additionally, for someone who’s done as much work as Dierks Bentley at cultivating a rough-edged country-rock persona, he remains completely believable even with the unorthodox production style, and while lesser singers might be accused of ‘selling out’ by going in this direction, the whole thing feels completely natural here. Despite the slickness of the sound, there’s enough of an edge here to keep the tune in Church’s wheelhouse, and like Bryce Harper last night, he put on a good show.

I’m a little torn on the lyrics, which describe all the metaphorical (at least I hope they’re metaphorical) things the narrator has done to get a lost love off of their mind. On one hand, I love the choice of detail in the song, as lines like “walking glass barefooted” and scenes like the fortuneteller encounter invoke some surprisingly-vivid scenes into the listener’s mind, and really speak to the depth of the narrator’s mind. On the other hand, however, the song never actually tells you what the cause of the narrator’s pain is until the bridge (and even then it’s fairly roundabout, saying the narrator will be off their rocker “’til she comes back again”), making the listener spend most of the song wondering what the heck the commotion is all about. By the time the track gets to the punch line, the audience is so saturated by the positive energy of the production that they’ve stopped caring about the narrator’s plight. (To be honest, there’s also not a whole lot of story here at all, as the choruses just keep saying how desperate a man the narrator is.) There are definitely some interesting nuggets buried here, but given how orthogonal the sound and writing are, the track really lets Ray Wylie Hubbard’s ballyhooed contribution go to waste.

“Desperate Man” is a bit of a misnomer, as only an artist as secure in his place in country music and as wholly un-desperate as Eric Church is could have pulled off a musical shift like this without it feeling forced. Whereas some artists (most notably Miranda Lambert) seem to be struggling under the weight of their outside, independent status, Church is embracing the freedom of his position to do whatever the heck he wants to, and the result is a refreshing sound that, while I’m hesitant to call it “good,” is certainly good enough to intrigue me about what might be coming when Desperate Man drops in October. It’s a nice changeup to the steady diet of dark, generic guitar-and-drum mixes the radio is feeding us right now, and shows that even when Church borrows sounds and ideas from others, he somehow finds a way to make them stand out.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins on the stereo.