If you’re going to drag us down memory lane, you should at least make it an enjoyable trip.
Eric Church has earned his fair share of critical acclaim and built up a passionate fanbase over the years, but for some reason radio has never really accepted him, and his chart track record is inconsistent at best. (Then again, given that Church is one of the few people who has directly challenged the genre with songs like “Stick That In Your Country Song,” perhaps the reasons for him being kept at arm’s length by country music aren’t that much of a mystery.) He hasn’t had back-to-back #1 songs in nearly a decade, and despite winning Entertainer of the Year of the 2020 CMAs, he had two songs fail to reach the Top Ten (“Monsters” and “Stick That…”) before reaching the top with surprisingly-boring “Hell Of A View.” His latest attempt to break his lack-of-back-to-back is “Heart On Fire,” the third single from his Heart & Soul album triumvirate, and while it’s one of those nostalgic tracks that I’m not really a fan of, at this least this one does enough with its sound and vocals to make it semi-tolerable.
So why am I so high on the production here? In “Hell Of A View,” I declared that “They tried to generate a sonic throwback to artists like Bruce Springsteen and John Fogerty, but the mix lacks the punch that it needs to really emulate the style.” For this song, they took the exact same approach, but actually stuck the landing by using brighter instrument tones, kicking up tempo, and (most importantly) not blurring all the instruments together into a wall of noise. All the same pieces are here (for what it’s worth, the keyboard is a bit more prominent here than in the prior single), but they each sound a bit clearer and more distinct, allowing each one to help deliver a shot of momentum to the mix. The result is a retro sound that crackles with youthful energy, giving the listener a sense of how it felt to cruise down Roosevelt Road with the narrator, and in turn helping them understand why Church looks back on the time so fondly. Trying to mimic an older musical style is all well and good, but it’s the support it provides to the subject matter that really makes it work here, and I’d honestly call it the main reason for listening to the song.
Similarly, Church has stepped up from his game from his mediocre performance on “Hell Of A View.” He handles the moderate range demands well (with a huge assist to his backup singer, who deserves a pay raise after their work on this track and “Stick That In Your Country Song”), and unlike his “surprisingly subdued” attitude from before, Church puts the necessary power behind his words this time. His delivery may not sound easy or effortless, but this works in his favor here because the audience can hear the strain when he tries to drive a point home and gets the sense that he’s 100% emotionally invested in what he’s saying. (His “outlaw-esque” image also gives him a boost, making him more believable as a narrator because of course he’s the guy who drove too fast and didn’t play by the rules in his wilder days.) Church allows his audience to share in the feeling of the track much like the producer does, and while I wouldn’t call the performance particularly memorable, he makes it an enjoyable listen.
The writing is where things start to fall a bit flat, starting with the fact that the song falls along the same nostalgic lines that “Hell Of A View” does (thankfully, this track is an improvement over that one). I’ve never been keen on tracks that lament the times gone by and pine for them to return, and that’s exactly what happens here as the narrator reminisces about the wild times they shared with a special someone (whose current whereabouts are unknown). The second verse is pretty explicit about the whole thing, with the narrator declaring that “I don’t have a single second thought that doesn’t have you in it,” and that “I ‘d go back in a New York minute,” sentiments that always make me roll my eyes and think “Let it go already.” What makes this song different, however, is that it’s framed less like a lament and more of a celebration of the good times, and it includes some interesting details and comparisons—for example, it’s the first time I’ve ever heard someone compare a truck to Elvis Presley, but it works so well you can practically feel the washboards in the road. (However, the “dancing on the bow of your daddy’s old boat” line comes across as an unintentional flexing of privilege—I don’t know too many people who own a boat at all, let along one big enough for someone to dance on without tipping it over.) In the end, the writing’s saving grace is that it’s malleable enough to be overridden by the sound and singer, letting them put their own spin on what would otherwise be an uninteresting song.
I get that reminiscent tracks are a big part of the genre landscape, but if we have to put up with them, “Heart On Fire” is an example is how to celebrate what used to be. Despite what the lyrics say, the past should be the past, and Eric Church and his production team do a solid job shaping the track in a way that minimizes its wistfulness and emphasizes its excitement, so much so that a less-attentive listener might miss the second verse entirely and never even notice the longing hidden behind the fun. I still wouldn’t call it a good song, but it’s a step up from “Hell Of A View,” and if it proves anything, it proves that Church was a worthy choice for Entertainer of the Year (you have to be good to make a curmudgeon like me enjoy a song like this). Still, we’ve seen what Church is capable of when he gets his hands on stronger material, and hopefully he finds some better cuts to release off of Heart & Soul to bring out next. Such material may not be radio-friendly, but hey, those are the kinds of tracks where Church is at his best.
Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a spin or two to see how it strikes you.