Some country music innovators get it. Some don’t. Waylon Jennings was a great innovator. Ronnie Milsap was a great innovator. The best stretch the bounds of country music to new levels without stepping outside the bounds — it’s still country. And of all the artists on mainstream country radio — especially the stadium acts — usually the only one that seems to “get it” is Eric Church. Granted, he’s no Waylon or Ronnie, and a lot of what he does departs from country music by quite a bit, but when he hits it right, he hits it right. As such, Church’s new album, Desperate Man, takes a lot of swings at the boundaries. Many of them are misses. But when he hits, he shows why he’s the best of the mainstream stadium guys. It also helps that, unlike his stadium brethren like Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, and others, Church foregoes bro-country — even the misses have more depth than what any of the others are doing.
The album opens up with the very Ray Wylie Hubbard-esque “The Snake,” a song of good versus evil. It’s very similar to some of the material on Hubbard’s latest album. It’s a thumpy blues-infused narrative. The second song on the album, “Hangin’ Around,” really has no redeeming value whatsoever.
Things dramatically change with “Heart Like a Wheel” (not the 1970s Linda Ronstadt tune), a slow-burning leather-and-lace tune. “Some of It” has great country phrasing and is one of the highlights on the album. Bubbling under the surface of “Monsters” is a pretty good gospel-themed tune.
Church is always going back in time to remember the music of the past — “Springsteen” and “Talladega” come to mind — and this album has its moment with “Hippie Radio,” a flashback to 1960s rock. It’s not as good as “Springsteen” was, but it’s pretty good. The album falters again, though, with “Higher Wire,” where Church’s tendency to sound whiny comes through.
Speaking of Ray Wylie Hubbard, he co-wrote the album’s title track, “Desperate Man.” Get through the undercurrent of “boop-boop-boop” background vocals (and, yeah, they might actually grow on you) and you might find something that could pass for a Marshall Tucker Band song. It’s actually quite good. “Solid” is an okay song, but I really couldn’t get into it — a little too dreamy and bluesy for my taste. But “A Jukebox and a Bar” is a real country weeper and is another album highlight. The album finishes off with “Drowning Man,” which starts off stripped-down but builds as the song progresses. It’s a strong conclusion to a sometimes uneven album.
Overall, this album is pretty much what we’ve come to expect from Eric Church. He has a couple of tunes that are friendly to today’s radio without falling into the bro-country trap, but for the most part he ignores what is considered radio-friendly and records what he wants. A lot of it is progressive country, a lot of it is unidentifiable. But overall, he remains above his stadium-act peers.