When it comes to Eric Church, one just has to accept that he’s always going to be more rock than country. This doesn’t make him some sort of sellout or trend-chaser; that’s always been part of his style, and the fact that he hasn’t veered from it or tried to be a different artist than himself should be commended. If you’re looking for fiddle and steel, it’s as simple as this: don’t seek it in Eric Church’s music. However, within the confines of his rock-country status, Eric Church can bring some truly excellent music. He has shown us two sides: the more rootsy, stripped-down side found in albums like Chief and Sinners Like Me, and the sweeping, arena rock style found on The Outsiders. It’s the former that suits Eric Church, and when he dropped a surprise album in the mail to his fan club last week, we all began hoping he would get back to this. I’m glad to say that his rootsy rock-country style is indeed what we hear on Mr. Misunderstood, and the result is a very good Eric Church release.
The album’s title track and opener starts with just Church and an acoustic guitar, which is immediately better than anything on The Outsiders and shows promise for the rest of the record. It’s an ode to all those who don’t fit in but will one day lead the band and be popular because of their music. “Your buddies get their rocks off on top 40 radio, but you love your daddy’s vinyl and old time rock ‘n’ roll” feels like a personal line for Eric Church, and this song feels quite honest. I wish it had stayed stripped-down throughout the entire song, but that’s not a critical comment so much as a personal preference. “Mistress Named Music” is one of my favorites; this is a song about the allure music can have on people. “I’m still chasing this song with a guitar full of freedom and a head full of lines”–what an excellent lyric. The production builds throughout this song, really capturing the song in a way that was held back slightly on “Mr. Misunderstood.” “Chattanooga Lucy” is a song people will either love or hate–it’s a bluesy rock song about, well, a woman nicknamed “Chattanooga Lucy”–but it’s a song where I pay much more attention to everything happening musically. Incidentally, I should point out that only seven musicians are given credit for contributing to this album, including Eric Church and producer Jay Joyce–say what you will about Church, but this is just insane in 2015 for a mainstream artist. It results in a very cohesive, sometimes live-sounding album, even if it isn’t country-sounding.
“Mixed Drinks About Feelings” features Susan Tedeschi, who is a ridiculously talented artist in her own right–just go listen to the Tedeschi Trucks Band–and whose name makes me think this will be an excellent track. It’s not an excellent one, but it is a pretty damn good one–the two sing this song well together, and the line “my figured out has never been more confused” cannot be overlooked. Now, I have listened to “Knives of New Orleans” several times, and I still have no words to write that would explain it–it’s just a remarkable display of songwriting that you should listen to. It tells a great story, and it’s a case where I feel the rock production really works. It doesn’t matter if you wanted to hear country–if you’re a fan of damn good music, give this a listen.
The next two songs suffer from slight production issues; I could have done without the lead-ins of electronic drums on these tracks. “Round Here Buzz” could be a single; it’s a nice small-town anthem that actually feels somewhat authentic, as opposed to every checklist country song we’ve ever been exposed to. Having said that, although it’s not a bad song, it doesn’t really do anything for the album. “Kill a Word” is a very interesting, well-written take on bullying and hate. “If I could kill a word” is the premise–Church sings of beating “regret,” shooting “goodbye,” and choking “Lonely,” among other things. “Holdin’ my Own” is a simple little song about just that: fighting adversity and standing one’s ground. It’s a song that might be overshadowed by others on this album, but after some listens, this one has come out of nowhere to be one of my personal favorites. It’s a case of “less is more,” and it’s just pleasant to listen to and will connect with many. “Record Year” is a little too pop for my taste in places, but having said that, it could make a good single and is certainly not a straight pop song–I’d probably call it pop rock. It’s a heartbreak song in which the narrator is trying to get over a woman by playing various “records”–as an avid listener of “everything from Jones to Janis” too, like the narrator, I can identify with this song quite a lot and just wish it sounded a little less pop. However, there’s no doubt that some of the best songwriting on the entire album is found on this song. “Three Year Old” closes the album nicely–it’s a song about the lessons we can learn from children, from the ridiculous to the profound.
Overall, this is without a doubt the best release we have yet been granted from Eric Church. There is no use belaboring the point that there is no fiddle and steel, and that this is at its core a rock album. This has always been Eric Church’s place in music, and his rock-country sound is at its best on Mr. Misunderstood. There are some truly excellent moments of songwriting here, most notably on “Knives of New Orleans” and “Record Year,” and it’s important to note that Church either wrote or co-wrote every single track. The fact that there are only seven musicians on this entire album is nothing short of mind-blowing. As I said earlier, you know what you’re getting with Eric Church–so either don’t listen, and miss some truly great music, or go into it with that in mind when you do listen. And if you do listen, you’ll find a lot to love about this album.