Trying to figure out Eric Church’s next artistic move is always more frustrating than it is fun.
Now, harsh as that sounds, it comes with the addendum that whatever he eventually delivers will usually be a cut above average in mainstream country music, and that it will certainly at least be more interesting, even at its worst.
But, to put it bluntly, the rollout for this newest triple album release has been one hell of a mess, from an initial announcement of a recording process in February of last year, a lead single that dropped all the way back in June, to several more standalone singles following it with no clear indication of where it would lead. Now, that’s a fairly typical release schedule for single-minded acts that don’t care about making artistic “statements,” per se, but it’s been a weird pivot for Church, who usually remains quiet until the album release and lets it do the talking.
On the other hand, I get it. For as much as Desperate Man has become something of a cult favorite for Church fans in the same vein as, say, The Outsiders, it was a weird pivot for him that felt forced in execution, and even he’s admitted that the recording was born out of desperation to find the album. I have a short, mostly positive review here I brought over from my school newspaper a few years ago … but to be honest, that album hasn’t held up well for me whatsoever. Maybe it was because he was desperate to find that album in the wake of the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting or that it felt oddly abortive and lacking in darker detail, but I came to appreciate the non-typical rollout that preceded this album, if only because an abundance of material had to mean something good. And while I was leery at the thought of a double album, much less a triple album where most folks won’t be able to hear every song, if anyone can pull it off in mainstream country music outside of Miranda Lambert, it’s Church. Plus, it was bound to be better than a certain other double album I reviewed earlier this year. So, the music is finally here, the reception has already been mixed, and this review feels late as it is – was Heart & Soul worth the wait?
Well, even with the extended wait, like all Eric Church albums, it’s tough to know what to ultimately make of it. To answer the obvious, this could have been condensed into a single album and gotten to the point a lot better, especially considering this is Church’s way of falling back in love with the music-making process and that Mr. Misunderstood executed that same basic theme better and made for his best album. Heart & Soul … it’s looser, more self-aware, even meta in the amount of musical references it makes to both Church’s influences and his own music. It’s bloated, but in an earnest way that I think sticks the landing more than it really should, and you wouldn’t gather that just from “Stick That In Your Country Song” and “Hell of a View.” Again, pointing back to Mr. Misunderstood, there’s a part of me that loves when Church taps into the self-professed music nerd that he is and has become over time, and while this feels transitional in a way that finds him getting his groove back, I would say this somehow weirdly stumbles toward being a great album.
And while each album was released separately, I’m inclined to discuss and judge the projects as one cohesive unit, especially when & is more of an extra six-song EP that could have been split down the middle between the other two albums and helped each one flow better. For an artist that’s always prided the album-listening experience from beginning to end, it’s legitimately frustrating to watch cohesiveness and structure fly completely out of the window with this project as a whole. Now, that’s not to say each project doesn’t have its own thematic arc, but it’s more about framing two sides of the same coin – a love for rock and soul music that’s meant to be more universal than personal this time around.
Now, of course I would have loved for a stronger country influence as well, and & sort of gets there the most, even if it’s more of an acoustic-based style that, again, most people won’t be able to hear. But this is Church, and again, I point back to albums like Mr. Misunderstood and Desperate Man for comparison points, two projects I’d argue mark a shift in his persona from the forced outlaw image of his earlier work. And while the former project saw him pushing into expansive blues and roots-rock territory while the latter honed it back to mostly more straightforward country compositions, Heart & Soul shifts back toward focusing on the sound, approach, and presentation. Some have also argued it’s come at the cost of the lyrics and themes, and while I’m not sure I agree with that, I do think this is a project where the overall sum is better than its individual parts.
I’ll say this, too- Jay Joyce’s production is surprisingly solid across the board, even when this album dips into experimental sections that, while not new for Church, still could have gone either way. I mean, of course the brighter, jaunty keys driving the propulsive groove of “Heart on Fire” are going to sound right in his wheelhouse and give Heart the best possible start, and possibly the best across the entire project. But I also really dug the atmospheric tones lingering around “Heart of the Night,” especially when the rickety percussion picks up tension before the hook. It’s hard to ignore the obvious Meat Loaf influence that everyone else has already pointed out, but I also heard bits of Elton John in the noticeably theatrical presentation.
Granted, this is Church’s version of that, and while he’s always been an eccentric, anxious, borderline manic personality behind the microphone at times, I mostly think he’s solid here. It helps that “Heart of the Night” is equally as anxious in its desire to find escapism and that “Russian Roulette” carries that same theme, and I do think his overall presentation has gone underrated here. This is an album where he sounds like he’s having fun with music again, and as someone who cites that as the best part of Mr. Misunderstood, it’s a legitimate asset here. “Love Shine Down” basically works off that huge hook alone, but he’s always been adept at culling it back for a great, warm acoustic ballad, too. So while I don’t think “Crazyland” really fits on either project, it’s an excellent moment for Church to address those multiple personalities that frame the album musically and through a simple aftermath of a breakup here. It’s the same wry, self-aware, shit-kicking attitude that frames a lot of why I love “Bunch of Nothing” in its Seinfeldian approach. “Stick That In Your Country Song” sticks out more than it really should and really shouldn’t have been on this particular project as a whole at all, but I still dig the heightened vocal tension in the overall progression that makes up for some otherwise spotty writing.
What I don’t dig is his falsetto, and while Joanna Cotten is doing the heavy lifting to smooth that out for him and is more of a noticeable presence here than on any other Church album before – deservingly so, I might add – Church’s overall flow gets maddeningly choppy on Soul. I mean, I dig the attempt at Jerry Reed-esque funk on “Break It Kind of Guy” that’s sort of stupid but works for that self-aware ridiculousness, but he’s really overselling “Where I Wanna Be” and isn’t a loose enough presence to sell it. And while I would argue he’s a huge presence behind the microphone, subtle he is not, and so the huge crescendo to meet the chorus of “Look Good and You Know It” is a lot clunkier than it should be, as is the oddly abortive “Lone Wolf” from the & portion. And he can’t always carry what are simply weaker songs, like the plaintive acoustic ballad “Jenny” that sounds more like an unfinished demo or add muscle to “Bad Mother Trucker,” even if that song did grow on me.
Circling back to instrumentation, and production, however, if there’s an element that saves this album, it’s probably the choice to embrace fuller tones that help flesh this material out. Maybe not as much on the sleepier, mellow tendencies of “People Break” that didn’t really work for me, but the piano work is pretty great across the board on Heart and supports some really potent crescendos and strong grooves, especially “Russian Roulette” and “Hell of a View,” which really belongs on Heart over Soul. But this is also why structure and pacing are basically moot points here, because while it’s easy to pinpoint which songs might belong better elsewhere, one has to judge what they have. So even if I think that overall angst and theatricality sort of leaves after “Stick That In Your Country Song” only to come back in a great way for “Love Shine Down,” when you leave Church with little more than warm acoustics, tempered percussion, and hints of banjo on “Crazyland,” he still sounds great. And even if “Bunch of Nothing” approaches that lighter side from a different perspective, I really dug the jangly acoustic interplay with the jaunty keys for something of a bar-band feel.
Of course, if everything from Meat Loaf to Bob Seger informs Heart, it’s soul that informs, well, Soul, even despite opening with “Rock and Roll Found Me” and framing it more as how the basic core of the music resonates more than the sound itself. A little ironic, given the entire project’s approach, but still welcome. I’ll say it, though – like with the vocals, most of my issues across the board stem from Soul. “Bright Side Girl” feels like it’s lacking a verse as it is and is one of the more generic love songs here – you’re naturally going to hear filler material on these types of projects – but what’s more noticeable is those muddied backing vocals and oddly joyless mix, and though it comes close to taking off at the bridge with the heightened electric guitar pickups, it ends abruptly and just feels unfinished as a whole. The same goes for the oddly repetitive “Jenny.” I did like the approach in the story to “Lynyrd Skynyrd Jones” to bring those musical references full circle, but come on, even one of that band’s rare acoustic cuts in “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” had more teeth to its presentation that this does.
I’m also, again, at a loss for where to discuss the & tracks. I like how the echoed reverb emphasizes the acoustics at the front of the mix on “Mad Man” and builds to a pretty potent crescendo by its end to reinforce that general feeling of going crazy in the content, and the general warmth and echo in the acoustic pickups of “Doing Life With Me” and “Kiss Her Goodbye” were solid enough for me. I even liked the sharper funk tendencies and buzzy synth tones of “Do Side” far more than I expected, even if I’m not wild about the echoed vocal and think the song is kind of ridiculous as a whole, fun as it is. But for a song trying to capture the joy of the live experience framed as a love letter to his fans, I was left hoping for more out of “Through My Ray-Bans,” not helped by the near-minute-long outro that could have used that space instead to maybe kick the tempo up a notch or give way to a more potent solo.
Of course, that’s a good segue for the lyrics and themes – long as this review already is – and where people have noted this is a far less personal project from Church … which I’m oddly fine with. For as much as I do think Church is a good songwriter, he’s never been the most detailed, and so when I think back to how maddeningly unspecific he got when he explored those demons on Desperate Man, I don’t mind him kicking back for something looser and fun. The music itself is the main focus, and considering it mostly works as a whole even when Church doesn’t, I’m fine with it, even if it’s frustrating how the & album breaks up that sequencing. It’s also where, though, I’d argue this project works better when taken as one unit over its three separate parts – outside of “Heart on Fire” and “Crazyland,” I wouldn’t say there’s one individual moment that measures up with Church’s absolute best. Heart & Soul has its love songs and heartache songs, yes, but it’s more about a general passion and drive simply expressed in different forms across each of the main two projects. I prefer the general escapism and rush that Heart delivers, but I also appreciate the generally looser vibe of Soul, too. I’m not as wild about using the word “heart” to end each sentence on “Never Break Heart” – it’s a clunkier moment for me – and I think “Stick That In Your Country Song” scans as a little hypocritical to include here when there’s nothing profoundly deep on either project (or really all that country, for that matter). But, again, “Crazyland” is just one of those perfect moments that emphasizes what I do love about Church’s writing and his sharp turn of phrases to frame some really potent stories in unexpected ways. He’s a good storyteller.
And I’d say that (perhaps sadly) gets emphasized most on &, especially in using “Kiss Her Goodbye” to frame the path that led to a breakup and the regret that follows in his own neglect along the way and in using “Mad Men” to highlight both a paradoxical general stability through it and the final breaking point from it.
As a whole, though? Again, it’s tough, especially when that aforementioned roll out has soured those looking for the full album experience but maybe not able to get it without the & album. For as ambitious as it is, I wouldn’t call Heart & Soul Church’s magnum opus – not even close. But speaking as someone who wanted to hear Church tap back into the musical-loving side of himself that went neglected on his last album, I do love a lot of the general presentation here as a whole. I’m not sure any of these are great on their own so much as they prop each other up and kind of work for what they are, though. Even with that said, this feels like a one-off transitional project into whatever is next, whatever that is. So as a fun, loose project with plenty of musical Easter eggs that’s a blast to listen through, I like Heart & Soul more than I don’t, even if I think this will stumble a lot more and not age as well in the coming years. For now, I’m just happy he’s having fun again. A desperate man finally found what he wanted to say.
(Very light 8/10)
- Favorite tracks: “Heart on Fire,” “Crazyland,” “Heart of the Night,” “Bunch of Nothing,” “Russian Roulette”
- Least favorite track: “Never Break Heart”
- Favorite tracks: “Mad Man,” “Kiss Her Goodbye,” “Do Side,” “Doing Life With Me,” “Through My Ray-Bans”
- Least favorite track: “Lone Wolf”
- Favorite tracks: “Hell of a View,” “Rock and Roll Found Me,” “Break It Kind of Guy”
- Least favorite tracks: “Bright Side Girl,” “Jenny”