Thursday, November 12, 2015

album review: 'mr. misunderstood' by eric church

You know, I've been asked a few times what I think are my worst reviews, or any that I regret. And here's the thing: over the course of nearly doing 500 of these things, you're going to encounter reviews where you look back and just wince a bit - maybe a bad turn of phrase, maybe a slip of the tongue or error in song interpretation, or maybe just an album that has grown or cooled on you over time that makes your review not reflect your feelings now. Now here's the thing: that happens. It's only human for opinions to evolve over time with more information or with changing emotions or even just the passage of time, and reviews being a snapshot of how one feels at a specific moments only further highlights how subjective they really are.

And as such, when you pair all of those factors with an album designed to court controversy with a major shift in artistic direction... well, those are the reviews that tend to spark the most vitriolic reactions... which takes us to Eric Church. I'll wholeheartedly admit my review of his 2014 album The Outsiders is not my best, and when combined with an album that showed Eric Church trying to bend country music in so many different directions, you got a mess all around. It didn't help matters that Eric Church is a contentious artist, drawing on tropes of outlaw country and some interesting songwriting ideas but playing them with little subtlety in the writing or instrumentation. Granted, if I were to reflect on the biggest miscalculation of The Outsiders, it'd be the overwrought, leaden production, courtesy of perennial frustrating producer Jay Joyce.

And as such, when I heard the two had teamed up again to deliver a surprise album of all things, delivered first to registered members of his fan club with ten new tracks not even cracking forty minutes... well, I wasn't sure what to expect. When you consider the record was cut just a few months back and slipped out as a complete surprise, you could either view this is Eric Church satiating his fans with something quick, or him attempting to pull a Beyonce, which he might have been able to do if it wasn't for Chris Stapleton's huge CMA success launching his sales into the stratosphere. But I already reviewed Stapleton's Traveller months ago, so what do we get with Mr. Misunderstood?

Well, talk about an about-face, that's for damn sure! If The Outsiders had shown Eric Church striking towards sounds and tones that were out of his depth for an attempt at swaggering rock star bombast, Mr. Misunderstood is far more revealing in its stripped back simplicity, and feels strikingly authentic for its efforts. Is it straightforward country music? Well, no, but Eric Church has never made that sort of music, this time instead of drawing on progressive metal or arena rock more hints of southern gospel, blues, and soul. More importantly, it's an album that actually displays subtlety and nuance in its storytelling and composition - not without missteps but a sign that Eric Church is working with sounds and textures he understands a lot better, and as such, it's one of the most welcome returns to form I've heard in a long time.

So let's start with Eric Church himself. By necessity this album strips back down to a range and volume that feels more comfortable instead of some of the rock bellowing he tries before, and it's a lot more expressive. Of course Church does experiment a bit to mixed results - I could do without his stab at falsetto on 'Chattanooga Lucy' for example - but for the sort of rugged honest tracks that feel lived in, he acquits himself just fine. A larger issue comes in the vocal production - and look, I'll give Jay Joyce a bit of credit, his work here is nowhere near as clumsy as it has been in the past. But the choice to emphasize that slight echo on Church's vocals in an attempt to enhance that 'live' feel is really mixed for me, and I like it more the less it is used. Nothing is as egregious as 'Like A Wrecking Ball', but on the slower tracks it could get a bit distracting. And on the topic of vocals, Eric Church's choices for female singers is a bit spotty as well, the most notable being Andrea Davidson on 'Kill A Word', especially when he already had Rhiannon Giddens delivering her rougher, more soulful side which is a natural fit. The clear standout is Susan Tedeschi's verse on 'Mixed Drinks About Feelings', not just for great delivery but really humanizing the song by showing both sides of the picture. 

Now it helps that Church opting for subtlety plays into his instrumentation and production - and yes, I'll give Joyce credit, it's nowhere near as overplayed and overblown as The Outsiders, even if I can't help but wonder if Dave Cobb might be a much better fit for Church in the long term. And even with that there are some instrumental choices I question: particularly on the back half of this album the choice to open up with some stiffer drum machines and processed beats strikes me as a bit of a misstep, especially considering how prominent and textured the acoustic instrumentation is. It's most distracting on 'Round Here Buzz', not helped by instrumentation that falls the closest to conventional radio, but it does feel a little odd on 'Kill A Word' as well, especially against those ethereal vocals that open up the song. But those spacier textures that Church uses to accent his background are all across this album, and are always accented with a sturdy acoustic groove or piano melody. And there are plenty of subtle atmospheric touches that I liked, from the slightly cavernous sound that accented the second verse of 'Kill A Word' to the emptiness emphasizing that late night on 'Holdin' My Own' to the subtle backing vocals near the end of the title track. But what will be much more noticeable is the overall shift in sound - Eric Church has always worked in country rock with an eye towards blues and Americana, and this album shows those touches move further to the forefront, from the Don McLean-esque tempo shifts crossed with Wilco melodies on the title track to the great southern gospel swell of 'Mistress Named Music' and the stab at backwoods funk on 'Chattanooga Lucy'. For me, though, where Eric Church really shines is in some of the blues rock elements - spikes and swells of organ against darker, buzzing guitars that never swamp him out, the darker groove of 'Knives In New Orleans', the choice to bring in seedier tones that feel strikingly authentic and not forced. Again, if you got a producer like Cobb it could feel a shade more raw, but Church really has a lot of control over his atmosphere, and his knack for nailing his hooks reminds me plenty of John Mellencamp and the more realist Americana musicians of the outlaw era - less posturing, more reality.

Granted, the writing has a lot to do with that too, and is where I think the biggest improvements have taken place. One of my biggest issues with The Outsiders was the brutish stabs forming that outlaw, outsider image - not only was it ugly, it felt forced. And Mr. Misunderstood only proves it further, not just by focusing more on the journey and storytelling but by providing a more realistic picture of Church himself. Sure, there's going to be that lone wolf element, but songs like the title track and especially 'Record Year' shows Church as more of an introverted music nerd who collects and appreciates vinyl and can name-drop artists not for indie cred but because he shows genuine appreciation for the art. And while I was initially wary of it running up to pandering to indie music nerds like me, it rings as more populist and empathetic because Church doesn't pull punches in his framing. The title track might seem to cater to the teenage rock star fantasy that runs deep in every music nerd, but it then shows the hard road ahead to get there, losing his faith to find his soul as he claws his way up, with the whisper that he understands that loneliness. Hell, if we're looking for one of the main motifs it'd be this, from the solitary dream chasing of 'Mistress Named Music' which shows himself born to lose his heart but struggling all the way, all the way to the vagabond run of 'Knives Of New Orleans'. And I like how it's never quite clear what Church actually did - did he kill his love in a bourbon-soaked rage, or is it more metaphorical, a crime against that mistress named music in the restless swamp, trying not to fall into a deeper darkness? And that's before 'Kill A Word', where Church ironically takes violent action to crush hateful words, preferring the stick and stones that might not have the lasting impact. Of course, most of this album isn't as abstract, but it does highlight that loneliness even further, from the search for drunken relief from heartbreak on 'Mixed Drinks About Feelings' to being left behind in a small town by a girl bound for the city on 'Round Here Buzz'. And of course there are songs about family, easily the most conventional but no less powerful like on 'Hold My Own' where Church yearns to return to the road but can't stand to leave them behind, or 'Three Year Old', a song where he speaks of simple life lessons he learned from his young son - and it is as corny as it sounds, but it speaks to innocence and imagination in a way I did really appreciate. But my favourite song on this record is 'Record Year', a track that shows Church getting over heartbreak through a stack of old vinyl, finding solace in music that might not completely replace her, but it'll do for now as he retreats into his music. Yeah, definitely been there.

In other words, if Eric Church was looking for a way to win me back after The Outsiders, Mr. Misunderstood pulled it off, as this is some of the best work of his entire career. Authentic and subtle, this is music for people who love music, and it really did strike a chord with me. For me, it's a solid 8/10 and definitely a recommendation if you're looking for something on the blues rock side of modern outlaw country. And with the success of Chris Stapleton, expect to see a lot of this break onto country radio... and we'll all be better for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment