Eric Church, for a mainstream country artist, doesn’t follow rules. This was already apparent when he followed up his commercial breakthrough album ‘Chief’ with the polarizing ‘The Outsiders’, weaving harder rock sounds, commercial country, blues and even elements of psychedelia into a melting pot of interesting repertoire. He continued to surprise with single releases, and even with each song that didn’t reach top 10 status on radio, he carried on selling records and tickets and moved on to the next release, seemingly with little interest in whether they reached #1 or not.
This is important and noteworthy at a time when albums regularly don’t get released because a song hasn’t made it near the top spot. When artists’ careers fall into jeopardy because they reached top 40, not top 20. When everyone is still so focused on getting that radio hit, even if that hit never translates into appropriate sales. Eric seems to buck the trend every time – and even songs that would die if released by someone else garner decent airplay because he’s Eric Church. Luckily, he tends to use these powers for good, and is intent on riding the tail of unconvention while everyone around him scrabbles to chase trends.
This was exemplified further when he surprise-dropped his new record ‘Mr. Misunderstood’ back in November – only a handful of people knew the album even existed, and what’s more, his fan club members got it first. The title track went to radio soon after and managed to reach a solid top 15 – impressive given there were no hip hop beats, no hot booty in the club, no trucks and no beer. His follow-up single is ‘Record Year’, one of my personal favorites from the album, and once again I applaud the way he refuses to do anything but be himself.
It can be hard to genre-categorize Eric Church songs, simply because he incorporates a lot of influences into everything he does. ‘Record Year’ follows that lead, strung along the same line of acoustic-based country rock and country pop songs that the rest of the album boasts; yet always allowing time for a few unique elements to set it apart. We can hear that in the note-warped electric guitar and the shallow drum loop in the intro, a sparse motif that is built upon gradually until we move into the chorus. The chorus is a far more familiar country pop/rock affair, with a catchy, palatable melody, a feel-good vibe and a sense of real instrumentation. Even though digital elements have clearly been used here, there’s an earthiness to the production that allows it to stand out and also feel really comfortable to listen to.
The lyrics, however, are where this relatively simple track shines. It finds the narrator suffering a heartbreak and using music to get him through, including the referencing of plenty of famous albums such as Willie Nelson’s ‘Red-Headed Stranger’ and Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs In The Key of Life’. Beyond other tracks in a similar vein, Eric finds wisdom in his situation, as he becomes glad he has had the chance to rediscover old music and eventually finds himself grateful to his ex for walking out on him. It’s extremely well-written and is very relatable to many of us, without endlessly retracing old ground.
At a time when music-making in Nashville seems to be becoming ever-more calculated and mechanical, Eric Church manages to ground us in his album releases and single choices. No, ‘Record Year’ is not going to change the world, but it’s a damn good song, and it can be rare to find that level of heart and soul in a single on country radio these days.