Eric Church is an interesting case as far as the modern country scene goes. On one hand, Church is the type of roguish country outlaw, in the vein of a Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton, who is thriving in today’s ever-altering musical landscape. On the other, and like the aforementioned Stapleton, Church is a major label act who has experienced plenty of success on country radio.
This has both benefitted and undercut Church, in a way. While his major label status has opened doors and ably marketed him as the cap-and-aviators-rocking country crooner with a little outlaw edge, it has also somewhat lumped him in with fellow major label modern acts like Luke Bryan. And with no disrespect to Bryan or Church (personally, I’m a fan of both), their sounds aren’t exactly similar. Hell, this is the guy who can be a major label act like Rascal Flatts, and get fired by the very same band for going rogue and playing far too long during opening sets on a tour more than a decade ago.
In hindsight, perhaps Mr. Misunderstood was a fitting name for Church’s last full-length (released in 2015). Church, who plays a show at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion on Friday, April 27 that was rescheduled last year because of Hurricane Harvey, is a gifted singer-songwriter who has an ear for melody and hooks. He is also a no-nonsense guy who isn’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers, a man who is notoriously fan-friendly but also very private.
This all sort of explains how Mr. Misunderstood came to be in the first place. When the album was released in late 2015, Church was red-hot. His previous two albums had each gone Platinum, and singles like “Springsteen” and “Like a Wrecking Ball” had already owned country radio. It seemed the right time to record his most personal album to date, market it as such with months of buildup and publicity, then watch the money and adoration roll in. Instead, Church sent surprise physical copies of Mr. Misunderstood to members of his fan club, then dropped the thing on streaming services the following day.
Now, this is no Songs of Innocence situation, whereupon U2 and Apple essentially infiltrated people’s iPhones in uploading an album no one really asked for in the first place. Rather, Church’s Mr. Misunderstood was a welcome surprise, and there is a simple reason for this – it’s probably the best country record of the decade.
Mr. Misunderstood is a throwback as albums goes. In a day where singles rule and playlists dominate, Church’s latest is beautiful in its simplicity. 10 tracks, all of them quality. A shade under 40 minutes, so not one to overstay its welcome. This is, simply put, an album without an ounce of fat on it.
Originally intended as an album comprised solely of duets, Mr. Misunderstood managed to get three duets onto the final track list. The unquestioned gem of these three is the Susan Tedeschi collaboration, "Mixed Drinks About Feelings," which is not a track one would enjoy in the midst of relationship strife.
The duets are of high quality, but Church is best on his own, and Mr. Misunderstood is no exception. The self-titled track sets the tone for what is to follow, a deeply personal album that tells of love, loss and days gone by. “Knives of New Orleans,” which Church penned with singer-songwriter extraordinaire Travis Meadows, is as haunting a track as they come.
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But the highlight of Mr. Misunderstood comes in its second half, particularly the trio of “Round Here Buzz,” “Holdin’ My Own” and “Record Year.” “Round Here Buzz” and “Record Year” are each of two minds. On one hand, each song’s protagonist has lost a love. On the other, said protagonist is trying to make the best of these unfortunate circumstances, whether via downing drinks in their hometown (“Round Here Buzz”) or tearing through a three-foot stack of vinyl (“Record Year”). “Holdin’ My Own,” meanwhile, is arguably the best track Church ever recorded, a subdued acoustic anthem for anyone who’s ever fought through hard times and turned out better for it.
Mr. Misunderstood doesn’t have a “Springsteen” or “Drink in My Hand,” ready-made mega-hits that (deservedly) hit the top spot on country radio. Rather, the album is one with heart, a record built for the long haul. If anything, Mr. Misunderstood is more affecting after several listens; this is not an album meant to wow at first listen.
That’s almost for the best. Some music is meant to strike like a shot of whiskey, others more like a soothing glass of bourbon. Mr. Misunderstood most certainly falls into the latter category. Is it Church’s most rocking album? Not really. Hell, it’ll be interesting to see how the more subdued tunes play before a wild crowd in The Woodlands.
Not that it matters either way. Eric Church has gone from the fringes of the mainstream to a full-blown country star, and he did it his way. As much is certainly evident with both the release and contents of his latest release. Mr. Misunderstood? Fortunately, as it pertains to Church, that really isn’t the case anymore.