Eric Church Proves a Consummate Country Crooner on ‘Desperate Man’

Eric Church has been given plenty genre descriptions over the years, including “country rock,” “southern rock,” and even “outlaw country.” His sixth album, “Desperate Man,”makes it clear why he has been hard to pigeonhole, as he shuttles between disparate styles with a rare fluidity and force. The desperation referred to in the title seems to have inspired a serious creative outpouring. There are barebones roots rock tracks and full-on arena numbers. There are upbeat bangers interspersed with tortured western balladry. While the blues can be found in all country, it usually shows up in an ultra-distilled and disinfected form, whereas this album plays up the blues element in a way that imbues the music with a striking, edgy authenticity. One of the most striking features of the recording is Church’s remarkable versatility as a singer. The album sounds like it features at least five lead vocalists. More important is how well Church pulls it off, offering a set of songs that is consistently engaging, with enough common threads to still make for a cohesive record.

Opener “The Snake” begins with stripped down guitar that couldn’t sound more bluesy, with the strings pulled, at moments, as if about to snap. A groove takes hold, and Church begins speaking in a hushed, down-home voice, over chain gang “Ooh ooh” backing vocals. Church has a surname to live up to, and he starts the record in appropriately biblical fashion, but does it in a refreshingly badass way, with lines like, “Rattlesnake said to the copperhead/ “Y’know we were the original sin / And I bet you my rattle against your copper / That the bitch takes the apple again.” It’s an ominous, but playful beginning, and sets the stage sonically for an album that twists and molds the general country template.

“Hanging Around” shifts gears dramatically — an upbeat stomper with Church singing in the high register, as twangy as could be. This is a dancey, hard rocking number, with interjections of “Sweat, sweat!” and “Hot, hot!” that make for a fun, festive tune in the same vein as Ram Jam’s “Black Betty.” There’s organ, and female backing vocals, placing little, memorable accents here and there. The most memorable part is a bit with Church on baritone duty again, singing an age-old blues, distilled infinitely, and showing up here in an extremely smooth, countrified form, over handclaps that give it an infectious drive. It oddly, vaguely recalls George Kranz’s “Din da da.”  “Heart Like a Wheel” is a slower song that finds Church cooning with more vulnerability in his voice, sounding almost like Willie Nelson, before exploding into an howl, and stadium theatrics during the chorus. The tremolo guitars chords are essential in establishing the song’s sepia tone. Church sings about a relationship between two from different classes, with vivid lyrics like, “She’s caviar and mascara / I’m corduroy and leather,” before declaring, “But I got a heart like a wheel, baby, let’s go.”

“Some Of It” is a reflective track with Church in nearly-yodeling mode. He drops little philosophical nuggets like, “And nobody wins in a fight / And sometimes wrong is right,” which all makes sense once you reach the chorus, as it becomes clear this is a song about wisdom. Succinctly put, “Some of it comes from heartbreak / Most of it comes with age.” By “Monsters,” the album has gradually steered back to center, from the further out point where it began. This is pretty generic fare that wouldn’t sound out of place at all on mainstream country radio. There’s a religious thread running through the record, hinted at coyly in the first track, that resurfaces in this song. Church sings about a child scared of the titular “monsters,” who grows up to learn who the real monsters are — essentially the result of the first song’s two snakes’ collusion. There’s a glimpse at the problems that plague us all, those that have made Church “a desperate man.” He puts things in snappy little aphorisms like, “The wolf hunts a hungry man and the devil a lonely heart.”

“Hippie Radio” is a trip down memory lane, recalling Church’s times with his father and later with his girlfriend, all soundtracked to the the eponymous music. Lines like “It was ‘White Wedding’  and ‘Rebel Yell’ on the hippie radio” function like a badge of identity, making it clear that Church is about as heartland as it could be, as no one in their right mind considers Billy idol hippie music. Surely there are older folk in small towns who once called everything except country “hippie music,” and this is the way Church uses the term, although it’s unclear whether he’s being ironic at all. “Higher Wire” is a gritty, blues rock of the most southern variety. There are jolting, stuttering, bending guitar licks, and Church on his most idiosyncratic vocals, gasping, groaning, and rasping in a one-of-a-kind performance. “Ba ba ba” backing vocals at moments feel like a country take on doo-wop. Lyrically, the song picks up where “Heart Like a Wheel” left off. It’s another love song, and things have gone way beyond mere wheels, as Church declares, “There ain’t no landing gear on this big jetliner.” The song is filled with wild imagery, like “Chartreuse snake old lady / Appalachia moonshine crazy.”

The title track sounds, upon first listen, like a classic song you’ve heard a million times before. It’s punchy southern rock number with echoes of CCR and Skynard. The doo-wop elements of the last track continue on this one, with “Boo boo boo” backing vocals. The song is about having searched for fulfillment nearly everywhere, and still clinging on to hope despite all the dejection. Lyrics like “Fortune teller told me, “No more last chances… Oh, but I ain’t listenin’ / You black-hearted gypsy” paint a humorous picture, as one can just imagine Church, adorned in cowboy hat, 501s, and leather boots, visiting a new age clairvoyant in mala beads and amulets, and storming out in rage.

WIth a title like “Desperate Man,” you would expect this album to be all doom and gloom. Instead, what you get is a well-rounded emotional journey with ups and downs, and an overall sound that is rather bright. In spite of all the desperation, the implicit take-home message seems one of resilience rather than throwing in the towel.  A lot of country music devotes itself to the gospel of being an upstanding citizen, and while Church dabbles in this fare with his biblical allusions and value judgments, he does it with enough subtlety, and enough edge, that he never comes across as too preachy. The record sounds both heartfelt and lighthearted. There’s so much variety of style here that the collection of songs could almost be mistaken for a compilation of artists from various country subgenres. And Church pulls it off with so much aplomb that it never sounds forced or contrived.

Desperate Man” is available Oct. 5 on Apple Music.