Another solid, if not wholly remarkable, release from Church.
Despite an established reliance on name checking classic and Southern rock greats, Eric Church does his best on Desperate Man to create a sound and feel that comes impressively close to his forebears rather than merely riffing on nostalgia. “Hangin’ Around” is all strutting southern funk with a lean, mean hook that simmers atop a bubbling groove, while opening track “The Snake” takes a cue from Charlie Daniels’ “Devil Went Down to Georgia” in terms of the story-song format and subject matter.
Throughout, Church’s heavily-nasal delivery is both his biggest weakness and best asset in terms of showing himself to have an immediately recognizable, inimitable vocal quality like Willie Nelson. In other words, he makes to most of a somewhat limited instrument by pushing it to extremes on songs like “Heart Like a Wheel,” where he strains for and just manages to reach the uppermost range of his voice.
There’s a decidedly everyman quality to Church’s approach, best exemplified in a song like “Some Of It.” Here he manages to trade in commercial-friendly contemporary country while retaining something of an outlaw edge thanks to his unique vocal timbre. Lyrically it’s nothing remarkable, tapping into all the expected and longstanding country music themes without reinventing the proverbial wheel. But it’s the ease with which he manages to sound both current and timeless, both the hallmarks of the genre’s most legendary performers who in a song or two helped both define and transcend the sound of a particular era.
Conversely, a song like “Monsters” feels like an oversimplified, almost pandering read of stock country lyrical tropes dealing with the maturation process and finding one’s way in the world. The closing of the narrative circle from Church’s childhood to fatherhood is particularly cloying and a bit too spot-on compared to the rest of the album. Lyrics like “I’ve learned that the monsters ain’t the ones beneath the bed” feel too obvious.
Similarly, “Hippie Radio” attempts to recapture the name-dropping success of “Record Year,” ending up feeling even more forced than its predecessor in its attempt to be both clever and hip with its knowing references. This type of allusion-heavy songwriting just feels lazy, overly-reliant as it is on low hanging lyrical fruit and not having enough faith in the listener to be able to connect on any sort of personal level.
Fortunately, these moments are few and far between on Desperate Man, an album that more often than not plays to Church’s well-established strengths. “Higher Wire” and the Ray Wylie Hubbard-assisted title track offer the best examples of this, Church sounding both confident and well settled into his musical persona. The latter in particular alludes to classic rock and country musically rather than lyrically, making for a far more interesting listen. With it’s serpentine bass and auxiliary percussion carrying the rhythm, “Desperate Man” plays like a modern update of “Sympathy for the Devil,” Church doing his best Mick Jagger-via-Nashville-posturing.
Ultimately, Desperate Man is another solid, if not wholly remarkable, release from a reliable contemporary country (commercial) outlaw. It won’t win any new fans, but it also won’t disappoint those who’ve stuck with the iconoclast who refuses to adhere to the often overly right-wing leaning crowd associated with country music (just see his cover feature in Rolling Stone for evidence of this). Far from a desperate man, Church here sounds both assured and settled into his established role as an everyman outlaw who still plays nice with commercial radio.