“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.