As Long as There’s Tread on These Tires: Eric Church learns the hard way

desperate man

“Some of it you learn the hard way,” Eric Church sings on Desperate Man, an album that plucks austere truths from tragedy and trauma. He’s got every right to sing about hard knocks. Church had already left town by the time the shootings started at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, but not all of his fans were so lucky; he was wracked by survivor’s guilt, and wrote a song called “Why Not Me” that memorialized a man who was gunned down while wearing an Eric Church T-shirt. He’s also endured breakdowns to his personal health, subjecting himself to painful treatments just to weather the rigors of a heroic touring schedule. No one would blame the man for moping, but dejection’s a non-starter for a guy whose calling card is defiance—and with his back against the wall, he swings harder than ever: Describing himself as “a half-cock, full-tilt, scarred-hands-to-the-hilt, don’t-push-me, grown-ass man,” Church responds to darkness with hard-won wisdom, steely resolve, and a strength found in vulnerability.

These songs may not directly reference his tough couple of years (and “Why Not Me” isn’t present), but they do get to the heart of his emotional state. Unexpectedly, after some early albums that felt gangly in their ambition, he’s gotten good at getting to the point. Church made Desperate Man with producer Jay Joyce, one of Nashville’s best (see also his work with Brothers Osborne and Emmylou Harris). Joyce has a knack for country recordings that walk a line between no-fuss traditionalism and modern color, and between this one and 2015’s Mr. Misunderstood, he’s focused Church’s outsider attitude and sly eclecticism into winsomely compact and appealingly direct packages. Desperate Man runs a tight 36 minutes, and Church’s prog-rock fantasies surface just once, and briefly, in the lurching drums and stabs of guitar that interrupt “Drowning Man,” otherwise a desolate country weeper. That song’s not the only time Church indulges in saloon soliloquies here; “Jukebox and a Bar,” one of his warmest and saddest ballads, lays out the desperate man’s survival kit right there in its title. Yet the work Church and Joyce do is never reductive or one-note. They synthesize classic rock sensibilities on “Desperate Man,” Stonesy swagger hotwired to Little Feat’s Dixie funk. Church belts a chunky soul ballad on “Heart Like a Wheel,” and leads his band through a choogling clavinet boogie on “Hangin’ Around.” “The Snake,” acoustic blues caked in Delta mud and analog hiss, is the most unvarnished thing he’s ever recorded, while “Higher Wire” is a woozy immersion is wailing organ and smoldering guitar licks.

One of Church’s most endearing qualities is how he never acts like he’s too good for country radio, even though he most assuredly is. A proud outsider, he’s always done things his way, but it’s not hard to imagine him finding another big hit with “Hippie Radio,” a fleet-fingered ramble through classic Pontiacs and FM glory; its multi-generational storytelling finds just the right shade of sepia. “Some of It” stiches together fatherly truisms (“mamma ain’t a shrink, daddy ain’t a bank, and God ain’t a wishing well”) into a song about how most things worth knowing you just have to learn for yourself. Universal without being general, its patchwork assembly of concrete particulars offers a master class in country songwriting. These songs show Church at his best: He has a knack for penning pop-country tunes that update the outlaw aesthetic with sleek hooks and contemporary punch, an ace in the hole that distinguishes him from guys like Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton—both excellent songwriters whose work never feels quite as free as Church’s does. Church is a traditionalist but not a purist, and he’s internalized country craft well enough that he can bend it to modernity without causing it to break. Maybe the more helpful reference points would be Ashley Monroe, Miranda Lambert, and Kacey Musgraves—true-blue country singers each gifted in reinvigorating classic forms.

Like Mr. Misunderstood, Desperate Man has the feel of smudged autobiography; not every detail comes straight from Church’s personal life, perhaps, yet there’s a clear sense of how trying times have left him clinging to the essentials. He condenses existential worry into pithy parables and proverbs; opening song “The Snake” is the working-class cynic’s guide to politics and an oblique reflection of Church’s rock-and-a-hard-place state of mind. The album’s breezier numbers—“Desperate Man,” “Hangin’ Around”—both feel like they’re vamping over the abyss, maintaining their momentum just so as not to curdle into despair. An unfussy spiritualism shows up more than one: “Monsters” is a song about how evil is real, the boogeymen just get scarier as you get older, and sometimes your best defense is to drop to your knees and pray. Meanwhile, “Hippie Radio” taps into another religious impulse, hallowing the connective power of popular song. (Put it in the hymnal next to Maren Morris’ “My Church”—no relation.) Church’s resilience is stoically uncomplicated, and “Solid” vouches for the unglamorous virtue in being grounded: “You may think I’m way too chill/ But I get it done, got my daddy’s will/ And I’ll always, I’ll always keep a promise.” On “Drowning Man,” he responds to a declining national mood with a truer and purer Americana; Lady Liberty may be turning her back, but longneck beers and honky tonk women offer abiding consolation. The least complicated and most affecting sentiment of all is in “Heart Like a Wheel,” about two mismatched lovers who roll the dice and hope for the best. “Over or under, we’ll roll like thunder/ as long as there’s tread on these tires,” Church says. It’s a love song that champions perseverance for its own sake—a simple truth and a valuable lesson for all of us living through desperate days.

All This Useful Beauty: Elvis Costello looks backward to move forward

look now

There’s a helpful antecedent for Look Now, the first new Elvis Costello album in five years—but it may not be the one you think. True enough: Costello spent the summer of 2017 revisiting songs from Imperial Bedroom, hoping that album’s baroque décor might prove a trailhead for further explorations, and Look Now does share some of that album’s lushness, its elegance, its crisp pop formalism. He’s also likened the new record to Painted from Memory, his winsomely melancholy and darkly romantic 1998 album with Burt Bacharach. Bacharach co-wrote a few songs here, all of which lovingly recall Painted from Memory’s brazen emotion and classicist structures. But the most valuable touchstone of all is Unfaithful Words and Disappearing Ink, the 2015 memoir where Costello consolidated a lifetime’s allegiance to the mechanics of song. Look Now synthesizes, deepens, and expands on ideas from earlier Costello albums, but more impressively, it feels like the musical self-portrait of a songwriter and record-maker who’s always been obsessively devoted to the particulars of his craft. It has the vigor and punch befitting a man who was raised on The Beatles; a sophistication that speaks to his moonlighting as an operettist; tight, tuneful constructions that affirm his adherence to Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building in equal measure. It is masterful and peculiar: An album that builds on everything we know about Elvis Costello while revealing that he can surprise us yet.

Some of that baroque décor has been moved in from Imperial Bedroom, carefully re-arranged to underline emotions and accentuate tunes without ever adding clutter. “I Let the Sun Go Down” bottles whimsy and melancholy, flecked by brass and buoyed by Costello’s cheerful whistling; “Dishonor the Stars” is punchdrunk pop that builds into a sweeping orchestral chorus. Other songs find Costello slipping into his role as earnest piano-side crooner, balladeering with the warmth and sensitivity he mastered on Painted from Memory: “Photographs Can Lie” is anguished melodrama, “Don’t Look Now” a tender sketch of emotional intimacy, Bacharach anchoring both behind the grand piano. These reference points are merely the poles between which Costello unspools boundless color and imagination.

He made the album with producer Sebastian Krys, a Latin pop guru whose gift is finding the breathing room within lavish arrangements; it may be an album where Telecasters share space with celestas and jazz bassoons, but Costello and Krys keep things clear and punchy. Just listen to “Under Lime,” a champagne salute of an album opener, wrestling seven verses and one theatrical flourish after another into a tight five minutes of sleek effervescence. Its propulsion comes courtesy of The Imposters, making their first one-record appearance since 2008’s Momofuku. Drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher supply the swing, and Steve Nieve’s piano gives the song its sparkle.

Their muscle and finesse go a long way toward keeping Look Out visceral. They raise the heat on “Why Won’t Heaven Help Me,” bringing its percolating simmer to a boil, and their red-bloodedness leaves a few dents in the gleaming, airtight grooves of “Burnt Sugar is So Better,” written with Carole King. Regal horns lend elegance to “Mr. and Mrs. Hush,” but The Imposters manage to scuff things up a bit with Thomas’ flurry of cymbals and Nieve’s clenched piano groove. They’ve have aided and abetted Costello’s genre-curious eclecticism for decades now, and they’re as game to offer genteel support on “Don’t Look Now” as they are to rumble on “Unwanted Number,” a garage rock thumper festooned with symphonic swirl and snappy girl-group harmonies.

Mastery of form is nothing new for Costello, but Look Now is particularly effective in plumbing the emotional depths of familiar grammars. “Suspect My Tears” is a string-swept mountaintop ballad in the Motown tradition, with lyrics both bitter and empathetic in their chronicle of emotional manipulation (“you’re not the only one who can turn it on,” the protagonist says of his crocodile tears). “Stripping Paper” returns to the domestic conceits of Painted from Memory, here using wallpaper removal as a metaphor for marital dissolution; every strip that’s removed is a painful memory, once so bright but now faded and torn and ready for the waste bin. The song’s silent agony is all the more devastating for its mannered exterior. In the past Costello has sometimes been clever to a fault, but here deploys his wit with strike-team precision, both in the words as well as the arrangements; notice how much “I Let the Sun Go Down,” which surveys the wreckage of Brexit and mourns the slow crumble of Britain, recalls the pastel-colored music hall of Sgt. Pepper, a landmark of English nostalgia.

There are dark moments here: “Under Lime” brings Jimmie—the wannabe London cowboy from National Ransom—into the #metoo era, unmasking him as a predator passing for a gentleman. Costello dispenses with him cheerfully (“it’s a long way down from the high horse you’re on”), and lingers long on his compassion for Jimmie’s victims. In “Photographs Can Lie,” a daughter is shattered at the glimpse of an old family snapshot, ruing that her father isn’t the man she’d always imagined him to be. “He’s Given Me Things,” perhaps the creepiest closing song of any Elvis Costello album, is a twisted Gosford Park scenario set as a haunted, stately ballad: Here a mistress is elevated to privilege through a tryst with a rich man, and the tangle of shame, sex, and class warfare that ensues is worthy of a Jarvis Cocker album. (“He has an awful lot of money,” the woman says of her redeemer. “The past can be bought—and then erased.”)

Yet as Costello’s wit matures into wisdom, his once-legendary snarl has been replaced with a deep well of compassion: For the darkness at the edge of these songs, there’s also real empathy for the characters. “Unwanted Number” is a song about an unmarried mother navigating a thicket of slanderous rumors; Costello says he initially saw her as a victim, but his assessment changed after the song was finished, and he came to see it as a celebration of the selfless love she gives to her child, despite receiving so little love of her own. And in “Don’t Look Now,” a wife trembles in vulnerability at the thought of her husband’s stare, even as she wants so badly to be the object of his affection. The act of looking is a big part of what the record is about, even its title exhorting the investment of our gaze and consideration; in its sumptuous surfaces and empathetic songs, Costello proves again and again the value in paying attention.

Dig in the Dirt for Light: The surprising excavations of Sam Phillips

worldonsticks

Some songwriters you picture standing on stage holding an acoustic guitar, or dutifully stationed behind a grand piano. Sam Phillips you might imagine wearing a headlamp and wielding a pickaxe. On her many lovely and distinctive albums, truth and mercy lie sparkling and precious, buried beneath rubble and mire, there for anyone willing to roll up their sleeves and extricate them. “Dig, baby,” she exhorted us on 2004’s A Boot and a Shoe. “Let’s excavate the surface.” And now, on her new World on Sticks, she declares her intention to “dig in the dirt for light”—a line so quintessentially Sam Phillips, it might as well be the title of her memoir. She has always believed in deeper realities and unseen good; she has always been about the business of excavation.

World on Sticks joins a lineage of albums that haul that unseen good to the surface, mining grace notes from the most unexpected places. On The Turning, it was a crisis of faith; on A Boot and a Shoe and Don’t Do Anything, romantic dissolution. For her first set of songs since 2013’s Push Any Button, Phillips is writing in a more prophetic office, surveying the ravaging effects of unchecked prosperity and unencumbered freedom. It’s an album about how greed and capital strangle our connections to each other, to the environment, to any broader sense of mystery; about how limitlessness can be imprisoning, and desiring more and more satisfies less and less. “I want what I can’t have,” coos Phillips in a slinky, rattlesnake groove called “Continuous Limit,” dissatisfaction springing eternal. But the diagnosis is followed by a word of wisdom: “You don’t have to make a living when you’re alive/ You don’t have to make a killing before you die.” At every turn, the album resists materialism as a dead-end and a mirage; it sifts through ephemera for truth that will last.

This is weighty subject matter, but Phillips has made a career out of defying gravity. A specialist in pure pop, she has an easy way with melody that lends many of her albums summer soundtrack status, while her ear for breezy vocal hooks has won her steady work composing for shows like Gilmore Girls and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Her songs are always deliriously tuneful and terse, but what she never gets enough credit for is her role as the preeminent pop tinker. Ever since she started producing her own records Phillips has displayed an impish zeal for playing around with different tones and colors, and on World on Sticks she schemes a high wire balancing act between the tight-knit band alchemy that made Push Any Button crackle and the lush orchestrations of a string ensemble. The band includes Chris Bruce on guitar, Jennifer Condos on bass, and drummer of drummers Jay Bellerose on all things that shake and rattle; the strings are arranged by Eric Gorfain and played by The Section Quartet. It’s an alchemic match-up that combines the punchy energy of rock and roll with the intimacy of torch songs, and it results in visceral pleasures as well as impressionistic effects. “World on Sticks” is a study in melody, groove, and noise, Bellerose unleashing some of his most thunderous playing, punctuated by squalls of loose electricity. The bleary “Teilhard,” meanwhile, is a wind tunnel of rustling acoustic strings and clanking percussion. On the mournful “Tears on the Ground,” strings fall like shadows across a winding road, while on “Roll ‘Em,” a song about a sociopath, they create a black hole down which the singer disappears. All of these songs are uniquely evocative; all are impeccably succinct, hook-filled, and buoyant.

They chronicle failed connections, intangible realities all but abandoned to material concerns. There are lost connections to the natural world; on the spare and urgent opener, “Walking Trees,” Phillips contrasts the patient wisdom of the planet to the rootlessness of its inhabitants: “If we could find one place, we’d grow the roots down/ But we’re like walking trees/ We can’t stay in the ground/ If we could always keep moving and never stay where we are/ We’d have to hold to the underground to reach up to the stars.” (Remember on Fan Dance, when she sang that “God is growing underground”?) There’s also “Tears on the Ground,” which mourns for a world that can only endure so much negligence and abuse: “The Earth has fever in her angry eyes/ Fires make the waters rise/ As we’re watching her gardens die/ The future’s falling from our eyes.” Phillips’ songs cast our lost connection to the world around us as an act of profound self-destruction. But there are also songs about being lost to the self; “Roll ‘Em” is a dark confession of ruthlessness, the frank admission of someone who’s willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants; the plucky “I Want to Be You” is just as disturbing, a dispassionate song of self-estrangement. All of these songs are, on some level, about lost connection to objective reality itself, but none more explicitly than “How Much Is Enough,” which quietly rages against our era of epistemological murk: “Someone keeps giving out the wrong numbers/ We’re not supposed to know what’s true.”

Phillips’ lyrics are littered with signs of the times—or “signposts in a strange land,” as she once called them. “American Landfill Kings,” about an empire built on garbage, seems at first like a return to the moral witness of “Black Sky” and “Same Changes,” withering blasts of conscience that Phillips has largely backed away from in favor of songs that riddle and tease, suggest and provoke. Yet even a song like this one, with its sinister hurdy-gurdy rhythm, is scalpel-sharp in its diagnosis; it’s a snapshot of a culture of hoarders, where an obsession with collected junk reflects internal entropy and disarray. Its humor is mirthless and bleak—but remember Phillip’s mission statement: She’s digging in the dirt for light, and on the album’s final song she unearths some. It’s hard to hear the string-swept benediction, “Candles and Stars,” without thinking of A Boot and a Shoe’s “Reflecting Light,” maybe the most cherished of all Sam Phillips songs. Both are about the paradox of grace, how it can only be channeled through flawed and broken vessels. But where she had “worn out the world” on that earlier song, here she has no such luxury; on a planet cannibalizing itself, our only hope lies in reconnection. Atop stately piano and thumping percussion, Phillips sings: “If only with candles and with stars/ and broken light from dreams like ours/ we will still find the way through/ to love.” The song is just a glimmer shining through rubble– the kind of light Phillips has spent her entire career digging for.