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 steely resolve. But that’s just part of the story: Desperate Man is tenacious but also reflective, and Church spends most of it articulating the lessons hard knocks have taught him.

It’s an album about how hardship leaves us clinging to the essentials– and appropriately, it’s the most succinct album he’s ever made. Unexpectedly, after some early albums that felt gangly in their ambition, Church has gotten good at getting to the point. He 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 condensed Church’s outsider attitude and sly eclecticism. Desperate Man runs a tight 36 minutes, and Church’s prog-rock fantasies only surface once, 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; instead, it’s unostentatiously catholic. 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 all atmosphere, a woozy immersion in 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). He’s scaled the charts without compromising his outsider image; he does things his way, and just happens to generate hits along the way. It’s not hard to imagine him finding another one with “Hippie Radio,” a fleet-fingered ramble through classic Pontiacs and FM glory; its multi-generational storytelling finds just the right shade of sepia. Even more perfect is “Some of It,” which stitches 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. This is a master class in country songwriting– a song where concrete particulars add up into something that’s universal (as opposed to general.)

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 who sometimes seem bound by their traditionalism in a way Church never does. He loves old-time country but he’s 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. There’s a freedom to these recordings, a comfort both with history and modernity, that opens up plenty of avenues for expression.

And what Church expresses here is heartache and resilience. Like Mr. Misunderstood, Desperate Man has the feel of smudged autobiography; the writing isn’t confessional but it does reflect Church’s emotional state. 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 once: “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 anyone living through desperate days.