First Impressions: Eric Church, Mr. Misunderstood

churchLord knows I’ve had my doubts, and even my concerns—but I’m now more than happy to believe Eric Church is misunderstood, an outsider, a purple unicorn, or any other damn thing he claims to be. I don’t even laugh when he sings about having a “guitar full of freedom.” Unleashed by the same corporate overlords who midwifed Songs of Innocence but thankfully closer to Black Messiah in its defiant expectations obliteration, Mr. Misunderstood is a tight little set that clocks in at 10 songs in 39 minutes, and in that time packs plenty of outlaw swagger, rock and roll thrills, alt-rock namechecks, Dixie-fried funk, Bourbon Street blues, and guitar heroics. Church writes songs that start off like campfire rounds before erupting into sheets of white metal. He snags Rhiannon Giddens for harmonies and Susan Tedeschi for a duet. He packs his songs with music and murder, rebellion and regret, more badassery than any country bro in years—and then he brings it all down with a song trumpeting the toddler wisdom of his three-year-old, turning from the tough shit to down-home sentiment like he’s Waylon Jennings and it ain’t no thing. The title song lifts a melody from Wilco and even namechecks Jeff Tweedy—don’t worry, I like it anyway—but one-ups Being There by being several things at once, mutating from wistful lament to balls-out rock, double-timing and then triple-timing, exploding and scaling back down. “Mistress Named Music” is a travelogue about following the muse, finding its genesis in Pentecostal hymnody but working up a head full of blues. Church left his prog rock inclinations on the last album, thank God; he takes some electric solos here and they all feel vital. “Chattanooga Lucy” is twisting southern funk like Lowell George wrote on his best days. Tedeschi’s turn is on “Mixed Drinks About Feelings,” a barroom blues that’s more Nola than Nashville. “Record Year” is showy in referencing Stevie Wonder, subtle in working in John Lee Hooker; it’s a weeper but not really, because his baby left him but now he’s got a great excuse to sit for hours and listen to records. I’ll drink to that. I mean, look: This record makes you feel things like Jason Isbell’s do, and it’s got nearly as many twists and turns as a Miranda Lambert record but in a fraction of the time. It’s catchy enough to get played on the radio but greasy and funky and hard enough to appeal to people who say they only like real country. In fact, it’s the country record of a lifetime—no misunderstanding about it.

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