Song Review: Eric Church, “Doing Life With Me”

So how do you do a Boyfriend country song right? Well, moving past the boyfriend stage is a good place to start.

Eric Church has never been a hugely successful artist by traditional measures (in an era where mediocre singles regularly ride the escalator to #1, Church only seems to reach the chart summit every couple of years), but he’s built himself a successful brand and a devoted following over the course…wow, has it been over fifteen years already? His decision to carve out his own path has given him a fair amount of freedom when it comes to single releases, allowing him to look past ephemeral trends and make music with some actual meaning behind it. Of course, he also stands out through better execution as well, which brigs us to his current single “Doing Life With Me,” for fourth song from his Heart & Soul triple album. It’s a standard love song (i.e. not usually a song that registers with me at all), but it’s got some added texture that elevate it above beyond the usual wafer-thin Boyfriend fare and its contemporary “Joy Of My Life” from Chris Stapleton despite plowing essentially the same ground.

Let’s start with the production, which is eerily similar to Stapleton’s song when you listen to the pair back-to-back, featuring the same “prominent acoustic guitar” and same “light-touch snare percussion.” The electric guitar is here, but not nearly as prominent (Stapleton gave it the bridge solo; this one is limited to background work on the final chorus), and producer Jay Joyce adds a bit of extra brightness to the mix courtesy of Charlie Worsham‘s mandolin (side note: this isn’t the first time I’ve seen Worsham in the “liner notes” of a Topic video; is he following Ilya Toshinsky’s lead and turning into a session player?). Worhsma’s work and the faster tempo helps to put a spring in the step of this song, and honestly makes it feel more happy and joyful than Stapleton’s track, despite Stapleton putting “Joy” in the title! The mix gets a little heavier when the piano jumps in near the end, but it never gets in the way of the writing, and the warm, positive atmosphere it creates reflects and amplifies the narrator’s good vibes and helps the audience share in his mood. It’s a rare love song that I actually kinda-sorta enjoy listening to, and it’s why I wish more people move beyond the generic guitar-and-drum formula to find ways to make their mixes both stand out and support their messages.

As far as Church goes…let’s be honest, outside of Dierks Bentley he’s probably the only artist who could deliver a song like this with any credibility. His outsider persona and position as an heir to the outlaw movement makes him exactly the kind of person you might expect to live hard and stare down a judge’s gavel a time or two. The song really doesn’t test him on a technical level (although he jumps up into his falsetto a time or two without breaking a sweat), but it’s all about selling the audience on the story and letting them share in the narrator’s feelings, and Church’s warm, weathered delivery and abundant charisma are more than up to the task. There’s a profound sense of gratitude that radiates through this performance, and when he says he’s moved beyond personal wants and learned to appreciate the important things in life, you nod along without question.) In contrast with the many interchangeable turns behind the mic we’ve gotten this year, this is a song that would suffer considerably with nearly anyone else on the vocals, and Church doesn’t miss his pitch here.

At its core, this is a simple love song for the narrator’s partner, and while we’ve certainly gotten more than our share of these over the last few years, there are a few things I like about this one over the field:

  • For one thing, this isn’t your typical love story: The narrator has been around the block a few times, living as a traveling musician (or “a road dog,” as they put it) and going through some serious rough patches (“The fists and the fights and the scars of the battle, the ups and the downs of the judge’s gavel”). Although it’s heavy on metaphors and light on details, its a seriously compelling story to hear, and it makes the devotion of the speaker’s partner sound that much more impressive.
  • An outgrowth of this long story is the implication of a longstanding relationship behind it. This is not a fly-by-night Boyfriend artist declaring someone their forever love on first sight; this is a time-tested partnership featuring love with a capital L, the kind of special bond that’s worth devoting a song too.
  • Honestly, I like the plainspoken-yet-witty feel of the lyrics, with the narrator able to express their affection (and work in some nice turns of phrase) without getting too flowery in their prose. The writing for “Joy Of My Life” always felt a little too gooey and saccharine to me, which may have contributed to its heavier feel overall. (Stapleton’s tune is also very reliant on generic, predictable imagery; even lines like “spend my living giving thanks for the ships I never sank” feel fresh by comparison.)

Where Stapleton is reliant on the listener to contribute their own experiences to the song, Church has a story of his own to tell, and it’s one that I appreciated hearing.

“Doing Life With Me” may not be groundbreaking or edgy, but it’s a classic tale that’s set up and executed to perfection, and is the rare love song that actually adds something to the airwaves. The production is breezy and tasteful, the writing has something meaningful to share, and Eric Church sells the story wonderfully with his background and his roguish charm. It’s a solid recipe for a solid song, and I wish some other members of the genre would start taking notes: Tell your own story, use the sound to support it, and just try to be honest and forthcoming in the vocal booth. I’ve called out a few Nashville denizens who really need to take a break, but Church sounds like he’s in top form and could keep going for a while, and I’m totally okay with that.

Rating: 6/10. Give it a listen or two to see what you think.

Song Review: Eric Church, “Heart On Fire”

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.

Song Review: Eric Church, “Hell Of A View”

It might be a “Hell Of A View,” but it’s really not much of a song.

Eric Chuch’s raw directive to country music “Stick That In Your Country Music” mostly fell on deaf ears in the genre (the song only made it to #22 on Billboard’s airplay chart, but I guarantee that it will beat that ranking on my year-end list), but someone at the Country Music Association was paying attention, as the group bestowed its coveted Entertainer Of The Year on him just last week. As part of the festivities, Church brought out his presumed next single “Hell Of A View,” catapulting it up the charts and ensuring that my review backlog would continue to grow instead of shrink. While just about anything he released would pale in comparison to his last single, I was really hoping for something a bit more interesting than this: The track is a free-spirit love song that’s a bit too safe and cookie-cutter for my tastes, and doesn’t do enough to catch the listener’s ear and stand out from the pack.

The producer here deserves at least some credit: 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, and it boils down to the same darn guitar-and-drum arrangement the rest of the genre is relying upon. Sure, the opening guitar has a classic rock feel to it, and the methodical drum line and piano notes do their best to create some energy and drive the song forward, but it ends up feeling like a mediocre photocopy of its inspiration: Neither the tempo nor the volume nor the overall energy level approach that of, say, a “Thunder Road.” The background cacaphony on the choruses don’t help matters, as the guitars, synth tones and “ooh-ooh” background vocals that are supposed to give the song a spacious feel instead cause all the other instruments to run together and become less distinct, much like the way your towels all become the same color the first time you wash them with a brand-new sweater. There’s just no passion or romance in this mixit’s more boring than anything else, and it passes in one ear and out the other without leaving a trace.

The producer’s abdication of their duties puts the onus on Church to inject this song with the necessary emotion, and sadly he’s only partially successful. Technically, the performance is pretty solid (no range or flow issues), but in contrast to the raw, personal feel of “Stick That In Your Country Song,” Church comes across as surprisingly subdued here, coming across more like an observer of the relationship rather than a participant. As a result, the dominant feeling here is appreciation rather than love, and the audience just doesn’t get to share in the narrator’s emotions. While there are brief flashes of Church’s classic charisma (and he’s certainly believable as a free spirit), he doesn’t put his own stamp on the song the way he did with his previous singlehad you stuck anyone else behind the mic, the song would have sounded about the same, and that’s something that really shouldn’t happen when a unique personality like Church is involved. In other words, this isn’t the kind of performance you can get away with when you’re stuck out on a limb as Church is here.

The most disappointing part of this song is that immediately after Church pointedly tells the genre “Stick That In Your Country Song,” he proceeds to stick exactly zero of “that” in his follow-up single. Instead, this is a standard free-spirit love song, with two lovers eschewing sleepier, more secure lives in favor of living life to its fullest, “livin’ on the edge” because “it’s a hell of a view.” It’s a tale we’ve heard a hundred times before, and while there are a few clever lines (“I caught your wings on fire
when I smoked my Bronco tires out of that town” is a notable standout), most of the track features the usual clichés: The disapproving parents, the chasing of experiences instead of money, and the typical rebellious statements about “nothin’ to lose” and “livin’ on the edge.” (Given the track’s radio-friendly nature, it’s a song that does not practice what it preaches.) There’s also a lot of annoyingly vague moments here: What does the narrator mean when they tell the other person “you paint your purple sky”? Exactly what is the couple doing that’s so crazy and invigorating? Put it all together, and you’ve got a story that isn’t of interest to anyone beyond the participants.

The irony of all this is that despite the protagonists charting their own path through life and accepting the risks, “Hell Of A View” is the safest, zero-risk play that Eric Church could have possibly made. As a result, it blends in far too easily with the rest of the Blandemic tracks, with run-of-the-mill production, vocals that lack inspiration, and writing that barely pushes the envelope at all. If Church was so adamant that country music start telling the stories of the forgotten, struggling masses, why didn’t he practice what he preached here? He didn’t get to be “Entertainer Of The Year” by being this boring and predictable, and he won’t get that honor again unless he finds stronger, more-interesting stories to tell in the future.

Rating: 5/10. Stick something better in your country song.

Song Review: Eric Church, “Stick That In Your Country Song”

Stand back folks: Eric Church is angry, and he’s got some choice words for country music.

Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on how we got here:

  • We’re currently dealing with a rapidly-worsening COVID-19 pandemic, an ongoing fight for racial equality, and a genre that continues to ignore the problems of the world and encourage folks to drink and party themselves into a stupor.
  • Mickey Guyton implored us all to consider the plight of Black Americans, but society wouldn’t let her display her frustration or anger without pigeonholing her into a stereotype.
  • Rascal Flatts asked us all to change our behavior to leave behind a better legacy, but the song was more of a polite request than a direct order.

President John Kennedy once said that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” That “violent” revolution is upon us in the form of Eric Church’s surprise-drop single “Stick That In Your Country Song,” and although the track isn’t causing anyone any bodily harm, it’s the angriest, most-pointed rebuke of country music in quite some time. Church isn’t afraid to voice his frustration (and as a white male, he won’t be penalized nearly as heavily for it) and make demands of his audience, and he wants country music to do the same by telling the stories of those who are suffering and struggling in the world. In short, he wants the genre to sober up, get serious, and raise awareness about the people who are in pain, and I am 100% on board with this.

What I find most ironic about the production here is how much it reminds me of Blake Shelton’s horrendous song “God’s Country,” but this time the dark, ominous sound feels a lot more justified. I absolutely love how song manages its momentum: It starts off small with an acoustic guitar and some spacious synth tones, but there are some very dark piano and synth notes underneath the guitar hinting that not all is well in the world. Instead of minor chords, the song uses an unorthodox I-vii-IV chord structure to give an unpredictable and unsettling vibe. Next, a drum set comes in on the first chorus and grows increasingly prominent and complex as the song goes along, adding an undercurrent of restrained passion and rage the matches Church’s increasingly agitated tone (more on that later). The sound brings to mind a pot of water getting closer and closer to boiling over, and it finally explodes on the third chorus with the help of some hard-rock guitar chords stolen from 3 Doors Down’s “Kryptonite” and an in-your-face bridge solo that hit the audience with an intense wall of noise (the choir “oh-woahs” are a nice touch). Things dial back for a brief moment to let the bridge breathe (the producer deserves props for delivering such a powerful sound without getting in the way of the lyrics), but the wave comes crashing back down on the final choruses, leaving the listener breathless and drained by the end of the track.It’s an incredible performance, and goes a long way towards driving the song’s point home.

Church’s vocal performance leaves no doubt as to how he feels about the current state of affairs. We can talk about how the song’s limited range and flow demands and how Church clears those hurdles easily, but it’s the power requirements that define this track, and how it demands that the artist deliver their lines to the listener like a hammer slamming down on a nail. To say Church satisfies this demand is an understatement: The man sounds like he’s frothing at the mouth with rage, so much so that at times he can barely get the words out through his clenched teeth. There’s a palpable sense of work and effort here similar to Aaron Watson’s “Run Wild Horses,” and you can just hear Church pushing himself to the limit trying to convey his frustration with the current state of country music. The result is a raging river of anger that absolutely overwhelms the listener, and they’re completely swept away by Church’s passion and irritation and have no choice but to agree with him. Forget just owning the narrator’s role; this performance should get Church nominated for an Academy Award.

The message within the lyrics is pretty simple: Enough with the damn party songstell the tales of struggle and sacrifice that people are dealing with in their daily lives. It spends the verses walking the walk by describing the state of cities like Detroit and Baltimore, discussing the state of a wounded soldier after the fighting, and spending a huge chunk amount of time to the struggles facing “underpaid” and “overworked” educators. (I really like how the level of detail gives you a vivid picture of the subject, one that makes you think “yeah, country music should be talking about this.” While I would have liked to see things like the pandemic or the protests discussed a bit more directly (the song was written before any of this before the pandemic exploded), it fits the times well because these are exactly the sort of real-world challenges and struggles that the narrator wants country music to focus on. While it doesn’t call out the Cobronavirus trend or specific songs directly, the implication is hard to miss: There’s a reason these stories like this aren’t being stuck in country songs right now, and nihilistic party tracks are the latest and most-prominent replacement. Instead of ignoring reality, the narrator wants it slammed down in front of our faces, and provides enough of a teaser to make the audience agree.

“Stick That In Your Country Song” is a wake-up call for country music: The reality is that people are struggling in America right now, and people need to hear about it so that they are aware of the truth and can start taking corrective actions. Everything about the song is fantastic: The production sets the proper mood, the lyrics lay out a compelling argument for more substantive songs, and Eric Church delivers the message with such force that people can’t help but pay attention and agree. However, being “fantastic” and being “radio-friendly” are two very different things (in fact, given how enthusiastically country radio has selling the Cobronavirus trend, calling this “radio-hostile” might not be strong enough), and since Church has seen mixed results on the airwaves lately (“Monsters” recently peaked at a mediocre #15), it’s fair to ask if this will get the attention and airplay it deserves. Nevertheless, the gauntlet has been thrown down in the form of one of the best songs of the year, and in a moment where people are finally staring to awaken to the injustices around them, ignoring this song and its message would be unwise.

Your move, country music.

Rating: 10/10. There’s a surprising amount of competition for my midyear best-song list next week.

Song Review: Luke Combs ft. Eric Church, “Does To Me”

It’s been a while since a song has made me feel this happy and this sad at the same time.

I’m not the world’s biggest Luke Combs fan, but there’s no denying his success thus far: He’s gone 7-for-7 reaching #1 with his singles, and after spending only two weeks atop Billboard’s country airplay chart with “Beer Never Broke My Heart,” he rebounded nicely with “Even Though I’m Leaving,” earning five weeks on the mountaintop and lingering near the summit throughout the 2019 holiday season (even though I found the track to be inferior to its predecessor). Now, “Thanos” is back to extend his genre dominance into 2020, pairing with Eric Church for “Does To Me,” the third single from Combs’s What You See Is What You Get album. It’s a bright, earnest look back at the “minor” successes the narrator holds dear because they reflect his values and convictions, but there are some darker undertones as you realize how big a shadow these past glories cast on the narrator’s present and future. It’s a song that puts on a brave face in the face of implied adversity, and as a result it’s a track that hard to get too excited about.

The production is about what you’d expect from Thanos at this point: A straightforward guitar-and-drum mix with a slight neotraditional flair to it. The acoustic elements are toned down a bit from “Even Though I’m Leaving,” but the plugged-in replacements are light, bright, and effervescent, and they come with all the usual toppings: Plentiful steel guitar riffs, a few keyboards (both a Wurlitzer piano and a more-traditional electric piano appear here), and a full drum set. The arrangement and slightly-stepped-up tempo give the song some decent energy to work with, and the overall tone is contented and optimistic, adding credence to the narrator’s claim that they are genuinely proud of and happy with what they’ve done. Whatever issues lurk within the writing (we’ll get to those in a second) are mostly obscured and papered over by this cheerful mix, convincing the listener that however sorry we might feel for the narrator, they certainly don’t feel sorry for themselves.

Combs has a knack for connecting with his audiences in a way that I haven’t seen anyone do since Garth Brooks, and this track is a clear continuation of this trend. From the technical standpoint, Combs doesn’t have the power or punch in his delivery that he showed on previous tracks, but his tone and flow are more than adequate to cover the song’s demands, and most importantly, when he tells you that his modest accomplishments “might not mean much to you, but it does to me,” not only do you believe him, but you feel like he gives you license to revel in your own not-always-meaningful achievements (my three X ranks in Splatoon 2 “might not mean much to you, but it does to me,” right?). On the other hand, Church’s inclusion feels completely unnecessary: He barely contributes to the song beyond singing the bridge, provides no cachet or stature that Combs didn’t already provide himself, and he suffers from an annoying case of Willie Nelson disease (he finishes his “does to me” so fast that he seems out of time with the song). His performance is as uninspiring as Thanos’s is impressive, and he’s lucky that Combs is good enough to mitigate any potential damage.

And then we get to the lyrics, where the narrator reflects on the memories they hold dear and declares that even if their actions are meaningless in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t affect the pride and contentment they feel for accomplishing them. This is where the darkness starts to creep in: The narrator’s actions (a football tackle, a prom date, a wedding speech) are not only the same boilerplate scenes everyone else in the genre talks about, but they smack of the sort of nostalgic, best-days-of-my-life moments that a person holds onto when they see no hope for better times in the future. The narrator holds on tightly to their past glories because they see no chance of accomplishing comparable or better glories in the future, and they proclaim their pride at being “a hell of a lover, a damn good brother, and I wear this heart on my sleeve” because deep down they think that’s all they’re ever going to be. As upbeat and optimistic as Combs sounds, there’s a distinct lack of optimism in what he says, and it makes both the sound and the vocals feel like a thin, disingenuous veneer barely disguising a bleak, hopeless situation. I can’t help but think of President Obama’s “cling to their guns or religion” remark back in 2008, and it leaves me conflicted over just how this song should make me feel.

Despite my concerns, however, I’d still rate “Does To Me” as a slight upgrade over “Even Though I’m Leaving,” mostly because Luke Combs brings enough personality to bear to grit his teeth and make the best of a bad situation (while Eric Church is just kind of along for the ride). All may not be well in the land of the narrator, but Combs and his producer don’t care: He is who he is, he’s done what he’s done, and if he never does anything else, he’s (mostly) convincing when he says he’s okay with that. Beyond that, however, the facade of cheerfulness fades away under further inspection, and you’re really not sure whether to be happy or concerned about the narrator’s well-being. The best thing I can say is that you’ll have to listen to it and decide for yourself.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth thinking about for a few spins.

Song Review: Eric Church, “Monsters”

I guess Eric Church was right: “A bunch of it you maybe can’t use.”

Church is one of those artists who is perpetually on the verge of breaking through on the radio, but is never quite able to seal the deal. His latest single “Some Of It” was only his second Billboard No. 1 and third Top Five since 2014, lagging far behind his critical acclaim and lengthy list of award nominations. A chart-topper is still a chart-topper, however, and it gave Church a bit of momentum to help launch the third (and perhaps the buzziest) single from his Desperate Man album, “Monsters.” It’s a song that invites reflection from the listener, but it doesn’t hit its mark the way “Some Of It” did. It’s not as moving and it provides no answers to the questions it poses, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed when the song was through.

The production takes the usual restrained approach that Church has favored in recent years—in fact, it’s the sparsest arrangement he’s used in a while. The sole acoustic guitar that opens the song is limited to chords stabs until the bridge solo, and the mix builds up incredibly slow, starting with a background organ, then adding some sticks-only percussion, and eventually bringing in a snare drum and giving an electric guitar an unimpressive, out-of-place solo. (And then the whole thing drops back to the acoustic guitar for the third verse, and never really builds back up.) I wouldn’t call it lifeless, but there’s not a whole lot of sonic or emotional energy here either—it’s pretty much just background noise that you barely notice or remember. It just doesn’t have the richness or catchiness of “Some Of It,” and when the best thing you can say is that it doesn’t get in the way of the writing, that isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement.

Along the same lines, Church doesn’t have the same vocal presence here that he did on “Some Of It,” and the listener is mostly unmoved by his treatise. His technical skills are mostly present and accounted for (although his flow gets a little awkward when he randomly decides to speed through a line ahead of the tempo, which is generally a bad decision anyway), and while he maintains his believability regardless of what hat he’s wearing (monster-killing child, bad behavior expert, father figure), there’s something missing from his delivery this time around, and while I can’t put my finger on what it is (perhaps it’s the lack of support from the production and harmony vocals?), the result is that he just doesn’t connect with the audience in the same way as his previous single, and he doesn’t make me care about the story he’s trying to tell. This should never happen with someone as thoughtful and charismatic as Church behind the mic, and he and his team need to find and address this issue before it becomes a pattern.

The writing is probably the biggest disappointment here, as it only vaguely describes the “monsters” and offers no real solution to defeating them. The story starts out innocently enough, with a young narrator using light to face his fears and vanquish imaginary monsters, but when the real monsters are revealed to not be “the ones beneath the bed,” they’re only described in vague, deadly-sin terms like “greed” and “pride,” along with some meaningless/obvious statements like “The wolf hunts a hungry man and the devil a lonely heart.” (What the heck am I supposed to do with that?) Worse still, instead of the concrete examples of wisdom we got on “Some Of It,” the narrator’s remedy here is…just pray and hope that things get better? That’s the best answer you’ve got? At least the seven-year-old narrator took action to combat their fears; in adulthood they’ve conceded the match to the monsters by opting for passive submission and blind faith. (We never learn how the narrator’s son reacts to his father’s praying on the third verse, but personally I wouldn’t have found that comforting at all.) I expected more out of Church and his co-writer here, because anyone who positions themselves as an “outlaw” like Church has should never give up a fight this easily.

“Monsters” strikes me as all bark and no bite: The writing is weak, Eric Church is unconvincing, and the production does nothing more than exist. It’s not interesting, it’s not insightful, and it’s not a great way to build off of “Some Of It.” If Church is going to release radio filler like this, he’ll be waiting a few more years before the seeing the Billboard summit again.

Rating: 5/10. Don’t waste your time with this one.

Song Review: Eric Church, “Some Of It”

I don’t like everything Eric Church does, but at least I can appreciate “Some Of It.”

Church is stuck in a bizarre spot in the genre right now: He’s earned just enough fame to play by his own rules and thumb his nose at the kingmakers of radio, but he’s also still got enough mainstream cachet to put up some decent airplay numbers. Case in point: “Desperate Man,” which still managed to peak at #13 on Billboard’s airplay chart despite being a crazy fusion of funk, soul, and country that took the sound and spirit of the Metro-Bro era and pushed them to their logical conclusion. It worked because Church has a knack for when to push boundaries and when to retreat to familiar territory, which is where his latest single “Some Of It” springs from. It’s a relaxed, reflective review at the knowledge he’s gained over the years, and as scattershot as his message is here, at least it’s one that’s worth hearing.

Unlike the “psychedelic disco-tinged mix” from “Desperate Man,” this sound is a lot more familiar to Church fans, with an acoustic guitar carrying the melody and a drum set providing a simple, straightforward beat for the foundation (and even pushes the song forward during several drop-everything-but-the-beat sections). An organ eventually crops up in the background, and the producer shoehorns in a fuzzy, unimpressive electric guitar as well (that opening riff sets an awkward tone for the song, and the solo is unimaginative and sounds terrible), but thankfully it doesn’t detract from the mix’s overall vibe. The key here seems to be tasteful simplicity: The chord structure is basic but doesn’t feel repetitive, the minor chords are periodic but not overdone, the noise level is low but not inaudible, and the energy level is measured but not plodding. It’s an arrangement that does just enough to give the song a reflective feel that reeks of hard-won experience, but then quickly backs off the accelerator to make sure the writing is the listener’s primary focus. While I could have lived without the annoying electric guitar, overall I’m pretty impressed with how the mix enhances the song’s message.

The “outlaw” label might be a loaded one in country music, but the secret ingredient to taking such a mantle is experience: Live hard, make mistakes, and manage to survive long enough to talk about it. With his bucking of Music Row and occasionally unorthodox and experimental methods, Church is perhaps the outlaw in music today, which makes him the perfect candidate to dole out words of wisdom on life, love, and everything in between. He may not be the most powerful or emotive artist in the genre, but there’s a lot of wear and wisdom that comes through in his delivery, and the song keeps its range and flow demands minimal to ensure Church sounds comfortable and earnest as he doles out his knowledge. He not only comes across as believable in the narrator’s role, but really gets the audience to buy into what he says, and never feels preachy or judgmental when he speaks. It’s the vocal equivalent of a doctor administering a shot without the patient ever feeling it, and it may even possess some of the same healing properties.

Upon first listen, I wasn’t really impressed with the song’s writing because I felt like it wasn’t really saying anything new: The narrator’s is trying to spread the knowledge he has accumulated over time, but the life lessons include such groundbreaking topics as money not equalling wealth, sadness being fleeting, and so on. However, I also found myself nodding along and saying “yep” and “uh huh” a lot, and realized the universality of the narrator’s life lessons: Everyone’s run across a few of these same truths during their life, and the “effectively vague” lyrics thus help the song forge a stronger connection with its audience. I also like how the song handles the progression of time, as it goes from addressing “kid stuff” like beer and trucks to broaching more-mature topics like love and devotion. (As an aside, however, if Church thinks “love’s not cheap,” he should try feeding a video game console addiction. How much has this dang Switch and its fragile controllers cost me in the last two years?) It may not be the most novel of topics, but there’s a distinct lack of wisdom and reflection on the country charts right now, and Church’s sermon feels both effective and timely.

“Some Of It” isn’t really trying to make a statement about anything, but there’s something to be said for stopping and taking stock of the things you learned the hard way and how they made you the person you are now. I wish the message was a bit more coherent, but I’ll take what we get, which is a reflective, thoughtful track strengthened by Eric Church’s delivery and complementary production. Church may have earned the freedom to go crazy on tracks like “Desperate Man,” but when he cuts off all the frills and lets his work speak for itself, there aren’t many better in the business.

Rating: 7/10. I’d put this one a hair behind his protégé’s latest single, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

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.

Song Review: Eric Church, “Round Here Buzz”

This song is a great example of what country music should be. It’s just not a great example of how country music should sound.

Eric Church is the rare artist who has garnered a fair bit of mainstream success while also earning the respect of critics and the independent music scene. His 2015 album Mr. Misunderstood was a staple on 2o15 “Best Country Album” lists (and won the 2016 Album of the Year from the CMAs), while its three singles have all cracked the top fifteen on Billboard’s country airplay chart (including the outstanding “Record Year,” which reached No. 1). “Round Here Buzz” is the fourth single from the album, and while it still features Church’s usual wit and perspective, it doesn’t quite measure up musically to his prior work.

The production on this track is unimpressive, to say the least. It suffers from the same problem that much of Miranda Lambert’s last album did: Namely, it sounds like it was taken from a live recording using mediocre musicians and sub-par equipment. The mix is unsettlingly sparse to start, with only the drums present during the first verse, and Church’s vocals are so low at this point that it’s hard to make out what he’s saying. The guitars finally jump in on the first chorus and the track finally starts to sound like a real song, but the sparsity re-emerges on the second verse. The electric guitar should be doing a lot more to carry the melody, but given the instrument’s amateur performance on the bridge, I’m not sure it could have done the job in the first place. While the entire mix sets a suitable melancholy mood for the track, it achieves this partially through the disappointment created by how bad it sounds.

Thankfully, aside from the volume issues, Church sounds like his usual, rough-edged self on the track. His voice is constrained to its lower range by the song (which is probably for the best, as he seems to strain for extra volume at higher pitches), but his flow and delivery are solid, and don’t get in the way of the song’s message. While Church has never been the most emotive singer in the genre, he captures the weary longing of the song’s narrator perfectly here, and has enough charisma (and practice) to play the role convincingly.

The songwriting is easily this track’s best asset, as it feels both generally poignant and particularly timely. On the surface, the song is about a guy who’s trying to drink away the memory of a girl who left town ages ago, and it’s fairly effective on that level alone. However, the song has hints of deeper forces that are at play, like urbanization and the slow decoy of rural areas. In most songs like this, the girl has left to chase a dream of some sort, like in Dan Seals’s “Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold),” or Big & Rich’s recent “California.” The girl who left here, in contrast, just went “where the high risers rise” in search of a “penthouse palace,” mirroring the trail many young, educated millennials (myself included, actually) are following towards the wealth and glitz of the city. In contrast, the narrator’s “one stoplight” town where the bar has “no gas in his neon light” paints a picture of the despair left in the wake of these departures. While one could question the decision of the narrator to stay behind (if Tim McGraw could go with his love interest in “Just To See You Smile,” why couldn’t you?), it doesn’t make the images here any less resonant. It’s the kind of societal mirroring I wish country music would do more often, and it’s a darn shame such a well-written song is weighed down by awful production.

“Round Here Buzz” is a cleverly-crafted song that captures small-town America in a way that few songs do anymore. It’s also a song I don’t really enjoy listening to because the production is so darn frustrating to put up with. Your mileage may vary, of course, and if you can stomach the sound, this will be one of the most interesting songs you’ll listen to all year.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth checking out at least a few times at least, and if you can get past the song’s production, you’ll probably enjoy it.