Having a panic attack about whether an album does or does not exist; that pretty much sums up CMA Week for me this year whilst trying to find some sort of source to obtain Eric’s new ‘surprise’ album in the UK. I ended up getting drunk and spending £17 on shipping it from the USA, which is a testament of how excited I was about new Eric Church music. After ‘The Outsiders’, which is one of my favourite albums ever, Eric had a lot to live up to, but unlike with some artists I didn’t really fear, because Eric Church is Chief and pretty much everything he does is awesome.
First to say, this is not ‘The Outsiders’. This is a much ‘edgier’ album with a very different vibe. Much lower on production, it is very rough-around-the-edges, understandable when you consider that it was ‘rushed’ out in about a month with Eric saying that unlike most projects where he has to search for the inspiration for an album, this album found him. That seems to indicate that this album is much more personal to Eric, without needing to search for a badass ‘outsider’ image, where in fact he is a multi-million selling artist. In fact having heard ‘Three Year Old’ in July during his acoustic set at the Ascend Amphitheatre in Nashville, that seems to be at least partly true, with this album being built around that highly personal song written about his son.
Having said that, I think Eric is at his best when he is doing ‘dangerous’ songs such as ‘Keep On’, ‘The Joint’, ‘Dark Side’ and ‘Princess Of Darkness’ which absolutely drip with threat and create such an atmosphere to immerse you in the music. There aren’t any songs like that in ‘Mr. Misunderstood’, which is understandable since this is a very different record than ‘Chief’ or ‘The Outsiders’, but nor are there any ‘Springsteen’ and ‘Give Me Back My Hometown’ tracks which are radio-friendly and going to form the backbone of the record’s single efforts. I think the lesson from this is that this is a completely new beast and absolutely has to be taken as a whole record rather than relying on a single to sum it up.
The meat of ‘Mr. Misunderstood’ is really something great, with ‘Mixed Drinks About Feelings’ giving a really cool soul vibe, not unlike ‘A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young’ from ‘The Outsiders’. This is a duet, although I can’t find the female singer who sings harmonies on the chorus and alternates verses with Eric. ‘Knives Of New Orleans’ seems to be the track which has generated the most buzz on social media, although I’m not sure exactly why. It is the song with the most links to the Eric that we already know, with a darker vibe and a ‘The Outsiders’ feel, feeding Eric’s ‘outlaw’ image, and whilst I do like this song and the imagery it conjures, I do feel that it has been over-rated by the impressionable masses, which is not an uncommon thing in this day of mass, instant communication.
‘Round Here Buzz’ is one of my favourite tracks for its cool R&B vibe and undulating melodies which are very poetic in themselves. Speaking about a hometown and the ‘buzz’ from just returning there, the song is very simple, and I think that is one of its real strengths since I think for a personal record to really appear raw and true, the bullshit has to be stripped away and the soul of the artist bared. That is what happens with much of the production on ‘Mr. Misunderstood’ and that is what happens on songs like ‘Round Here Buzz’, and also on ‘Three Year Old’, the other incredibly personal song on the record.
‘Kill A Word’ is a fantastic song. With an enrapturing and simple melody it paints a vivid picture on the power of words to hurt or heal with similar stark imagery to ‘Knives Of New Orleans’. ‘Three Year Old’ is quite different in that it is very light, and has no real hidden depth. It is on the face of it a song about how fatherhood has changed Eric, and I think that is what it is on every level. It is a sweet and well-written song, although it lacks the edge that I love about Eric.
‘Mr. Misunderstood’ doesn’t quite feel like a finished record to me, more like an EP, even though it is 10 tracks long. It is one of the better records of the year and is one of those that takes a few listens to really get in to, but it still has an air of a side-project for Eric. I hope so, because whilst this is good enough to be a stand-alone album, I have the feeling it won’t tide me over for 2 years if this is all that Eric releases. Nonetheless, ‘Mr. Misunderstood’ has this Church fan’s approval and the change in style is interesting to see, especially given his recent foray into acoustic performances. Maybe this indicates that these more stripped back tracks will bring with them a change in his normally-rocking live show? We shall see…
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