Eric Church Rebounded From A Rough Year With His Best Album Yet On ‘Desperate Man’

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A creaking chair, a quick breath, and the haunting, disembodied echo of a tiny whistled melody. Those are the first sounds you hear on Eric Church’s new album Desperate Man. They are steadying sounds. The sounds of someone settling in for a hard road ahead. In the next moment, he glides his fingers up and down the neck of his acoustic guitar, deliberately thumbing and picking out different mournful notes. Much like “The Snake” that lends its name to the song itself, he slithers around the fretboard for over a minute until a drum kicks in and he wearily relays an age-old allegory about duplicity, anger, fear and death: “Lie by lie, cheat by cheat / Venom in smiling teeth / They just run those forked tongues / And the whole world’s burning down.”

Eric Church has made a name for himself over the last five years or so, and especially since the release of his, bombastic masterpiece The Outsiders, as one of the champions of arena rock. He’s a country artist in name and presentation, but his vibe — minus the unmistakable twang in his voice — is far more Bob Seger and Tom Petty than it is Blake Shelton or George Strait. Desperate Man finds him flying farther afield than ever from the traditional, established Nashville sound. From a sonic standpoint, it’s his most eclectic record yet, filled with nods to R&B, funk, pop, and of course rock and roll. But for all of the joyful moments and revelry heard and felt on songs like “Hangin’ Around” and especially the title track, which shares a lot of sensory DNA with The Rolling Stones classic “Sympathy For The Devil,” Church’s latest record is shocking for how solemn it sounds.

There’s a simmering energy ingrained into Desperate Man that sticks to the bone and builds upon each listen to it. Produced by Church’s longtime collaborator Jay Joyce, it seems like the pair took a page out of Rick Rubin’s book, and reduced this collection of 11 songs down to their barest elements. Every piece of instrumentation feels consequential. Layer in an extra guitar part here or there and it starts to get messy. Take away that chorus of handclaps just under the surface and it starts to feel empty. There’s also a grittiness to the mix itself; a general throwback aesthetic that takes the listener out of the here and now, and puts the mind into a different time and place altogether.

As an observer, it’s hard to truly know how much of an artist’s real life successes and failures, joy and trauma makes it into the grooves of a record. This last year has seen Church hit some incredibly high highs, but also some perilously low, lows. There was his brush with death following the discovery of a blood clot in his chest that required emergency surgery and eventually the removal of one of his top ribs; the devastating loss of his brother Brandon after he’d suffered multiple seizures; and, of course, the overwhelming tragedy of the shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas. He’d performed at the event days before a gunman opened fire and murdered 58 people in cold blood, and left another 851 injured.

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