Throughout 2020, I will be writing, at length, about my favorite albums of the past decade (2010-2019). This is an extension of an initial five-part series.
To me, there’s three parts to Eric Church’s career thus far.
Church, who made his debut in 2006 with Sinners Like Me, emerged on the scene more defiantly than any other artist in recent memory. His debut album combined a hard-edged brand of country with roots rock, and Church himself brought the attitude to match it (his introduction to the country music world included getting kicked off a Rascal Flatts tour, in which a then little-known artist named Taylor Swift replaced him). Opinions of his music aside, there was no one like Church in the late 2000s, especially when he challenged his record label to release “Smoke A Little Smoke,” a supposed career-ending song that wound up thrusting him even further into the spotlight.
Early on in the 2010s, Church’s defiance stood out positively, even if he occasionally had to record a tepid radio number every now and then like “Love Your Love The Most” or “Drink In My Hand.” He had the creative control to record what he wanted and made no concessions toward country radio. To me, Church’s first two albums represent the first part of his career – a shaggy-haired artist who tried his hardest to be an outlaw and could spark real moments of greatness when he was subtle about it. But somewhere along the way, Church got too wrapped up in the narrative. I personally enjoy Chief and consider it a pivotal moment in Church’s discography like everyone else does, but with songs like “Country Music Jesus,” it was clear his mindset was headed in the wrong direction.
Now, I enjoy the intention behind The Outsiders and am more of a fan of its off-kilter tendencies than most critics, and Church’s foray into hard rock and heavy metal in mainstream country music was unprecedented for its time; but at that point, Church had become the biggest badass on the planet – all you had to do was ask him. It was an all-around mess of an album era where he got too wrapped up in trying to forge an outlaw mentality.
Enter the third part of Church’s career one year later. Coming from an artist who’s admitted to disliking the album-making process, no one expected another project just one year after The Outsiders. And that was the point. Initially a surprise project, fifth album Mr. Misunderstood was delivered first to registered members of Church’s fan club before becoming available at all outlets. With that album, it was as if Church was reborn into the artist he is today – a thoughtful, eccentric and all-around wonderful presence to have in mainstream country music who focuses on the music above the outlaw image.
And if that sounds like a backhanded compliment, it’s because for as great as Church was then, it was always balanced with an aforementioned negative trait. Not here, though. Instead of drawing upon metal and hard rock, Mr. Misunderstood is an excellent melting pot of country, soul, gospel and southern rock that resembles a better fit for Church and his best-sounding album. Not to say that producer Jay Joyce didn’t have a few production mishaps toward the back half of the project, but there was a better balance to the tones used than on previous collaborations between the two creators.
And it shows right away – from the “American Pie” tempo shifts of the title track to the incredible climactic solo of “Mistress Named Music.” There’s a greater knack for subtlety here, like how “Mistress Named Music” starts with the wry touches of organ and piano before nailing the transition to that blazing guitar solo halfway through. Not to indulge too much in hyperbole, but “cathartic” is the best way to describe it. And for as much as Church has preferred those bigger rock productions, he’s always been at his most effective when he underplays the sentiments. Take “Knives Of New Orleans,” for example, where he settles into his lower growl and only enters a higher range when the paranoia and dramatic stakes of the situation really call for it. That’s the ultimate beauty to this album – there’s a greater commitment to letting the tracks grow and develop as they progress, and most of the time they stick the landing from start to finish.
The writing, too, is among Church’s best. The ultimate narrative underlying the album is Church’s transition into a family man and how he’s embracing the inner music-loving nerd in him. Ironically, what sounds like a softening of Church’s rougher edges actually allows for a more thoughtful pen behind the stories told. “Knives Of New Orleans” has always been intentionally vague, falling somewhere between an actual murder ballad and a metaphorical examination of Church’s inner psyche as he tries not to fall back into that deeper darkness. There’s a bigger focus on storytelling and the actual journey to how and where Church found himself at that point in time. So from there we get a better look at how his musical upbringing shaped him on the title track to showing how that love still transcends as an adult on “Record Year.” This is the Church who truly appreciates the art, and though the lone-wolf mentality is still there, it’s way less forced and more concerned with Church’s inner struggle to be a good man for his family and an artist his heroes would be proud of.
It’s not a concept album, but there is a gradual progression to find that stability toward the end – from starting out with the teenage rock star fantasy on the title track to showing how actually getting there takes work on “Mistress Named Music.” And sometimes there’s a struggle in being that lonesome vagabond on the metaphorical journey ahead, told more abstractly in “Knives Of New Orleans,” of course, but also highlighted in the loneliness of “Mixed Drinks About Feelings,” in which Susan Tedeschi plays opposite to Church excellently to highlight both perspectives of that situation. And yes, with those young musical aspirations come desires to knock down certain musical establishments – it’s Church, after all. But those issues evolve into ending a downward spiraling hatred on “Kill A Word” and simply having time to focus on his family life and appreciate what he’s missed on both “Three Year Old” and “Holdin’ My Own.” The artistic fire is still there; it’s just shifted.
In the end, too, with “Three Year Old,” a new Church emerges – the one who’s become a quietly eccentric, excellent performer to have in the country music genre. And though Sinners Like Me is the consensus pick for Church’s best project, Mr. Misunderstood, especially now, scans as the album Church needed to make at this point in career, and for me hits just a bit harder because of that.