A year after headlining a night of the tragic Route 91 Harvest festival, the popular country renegade forgoes the obvious references on one of the most modest but poignant albums of his career.
Three days after the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival last year in Las Vegas, Eric Church debuted “Why Not Me.” He wrote the song in tribute to Sonny Melton, one of the 58 people murdered that October night. Melton had gone to Route 91 to see Church, something the singer learned when he saw Sonny’s widow, Heather, speaking on CNN. Eric Church wasn’t the only country artist to write about Route 91—Maren Morris also released “Dear Hate”—but Church’s news bulletin of a song speaks to his unique place in the modern country firmament. He is a self-styled maverick who named an album The Outsiders, but his numbers dwarf those of an alt-country renegade like Sturgill Simpson. And he isn’t a purist, instead embracing everything that comes with arena rock, from the volume to the crowds. Church has the artistic and popular credibility, then, to write compassionately about an event that ripped through the country and country music.
Which is why it’s odd that “Why Not Me” isn’t on Desperate Man, the album Church delivered a year after Route 91. The shooting isn’t mentioned even in passing during these swift 36 minutes, nor is the illness of his brother, Brandon, who died just after the album was finished. But Church doesn’t dodge emotions on Desperate Man. He grapples with existential threats on “Monsters,” admitting that true devils lurk inside the head. He swaps confessions for universal feelings, a trick he works with politics, too. Church doesn’t turn a blind eye to the problems plaguing the nation, even if the narrator of “Drowning Man” doesn’t want to think about Lady Liberty turning her back while “Uncle Sam just turns around.” During “The Snake,” the United States’ bitter partisanship is framed as a whataboutism fable; it doesn’t matter which species a copperhead or rattlesnake is, as they all prey on the weak.
“The Snake” is rightly positioned as Desperate Man’s opening track not for its clever extended metaphor or theme but for its swampy aesthetic. Church doesn’t stray far from its thick, steamy vibe throughout these 11 songs, bending other styles to suit this sound instead of vice versa. “Solid” starts as a slice of trippy arena rock, its spacey organ and phased guitars offering a sly nod to Dark Side of the Moon. Church soon steers it back to soul, confirming that the heady prog days of the burly The Outsiders are long gone. Church burrows instead into the Southern funk of 2015’s Mr. Misunderstood, keeping things so lean and spare that it can first seem slight.
Desperate Man doesn’t offer a grand statement of purpose along the lines of Mr. Misunderstood, which gained its power from Church’s ability to self-mythologize as a rebel existing on Nashville’s fringes. This is the sound of a renegade settling into his mature period. He’s trimming away excesses that were once endearing but are now extraneous. Whenever Church wants to rock hard here, he ramps up the rhythms more than he cranks the amps, making music that begs the audience to dance. His ballads are stripped so bare he seems like he’s singing alone. Other elements would distract from his nuanced vocal performances; everything that needs to be here is here.
The songs themselves are strikingly uncluttered, too, containing just enough emotion to give them considerable resonance. Though Church isn’t working through his grief in public, he’s not stoic. The mismatched lovers of “Heart Like a Wheel” make for perhaps the most tender song he’s ever written, while his paean to the connective power of “Hippie Radio” is cut by a bittersweet melodic undercurrent. The deliberate decision not to indulge in a grand gesture—combined with the consciously compact scale of Desperate Man—means this album seems smaller than every record he’s made since 2011’s Chief. That modesty is the key to its very appeal: This is an album designed not for the moment but the long haul.
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