Wednesday, May 5, 2021

ALBUM REVIEW(S): Eric Church - Heart/Soul

If you know me at all, you know I'll always go to battle for modern country music. While I could always add on to the never-ending echo chamber of "cOuNtRy Is AlL aBoUt BeEr GiRlS aNd TrUcKs" or take constant dumps on artists like Florida Georgia Line or Sam Hunt (both have some decent songs I will say), there's still a lot of great country music out today, even on the radio with artists like Jon Pardi, Luke Combs, and Brothers Osbourne being some immediate standouts. And of course, country still has its superstars with people like Jason Aldean, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, people who are still gonna sell millions of records and sell-out arena shows like they're going out of style. There's always been one artist of that second category who's always managed to stay relevant while also being on the genre's cutting edge and that is the guy we're here to talk about today, Eric Church. And when I say "cutting edge" I mean that loosely because to make something more interesting than what tends to rule country radio isn't that tough to do but Church always manages to find a seamless blend of making music that stands out from the pop-country norm (snap beats, over-processed vocals, things like that) but it also somehow always appeals to the masses.

Another thing that I think helps him is that he's always sort of had this outlaw image in the genre, someone who isn't going to be confined to a single genre and someone who isn't gonna let labels or critics determine what his next move and he gained it pretty early on in his career. After he released his first album, Sinners Like Me, in 2006, he hit the road opening first for Brad Paisley and that tour went well, where he went wrong was his second stint opening up for Rascall Flatts. According to Church, the band had "strict rules" for their opening acts and he never abided by them, most notably, their sound and time restrictions as every night, Church would play longer than his time slot and play louder than he was allowed to. Halfway through the tour, Church was fired. According to him, he was only given a 15 minute time slot and the two acts combined just didn't fit well together. All worked out well though as Church then got the job opening for Bob Seager and the opening slot for Rascall Flatts was taken by some girl who was on the come-up in Nashville. I don't know if y'all know her but her name was Taylor Swift? I don't know what ever came of her career but I hope she's been doing well. 

Church in a promotional image for the new albums. 

Needless to say, I've been anticipating new music from Church for a while but at the same time, I hadn't been paying attention to him at all which is why it took me a little while to realize that Eric already had some singles out at the end of last year. I think the first time I listened to any of his new material was when he announced this triple album and by that time he already had 6 singles out. And no, that's not a typo, this is actually supposed to be a triple album with the concept being three albums named Heart, &, Soul. Yes, there's an album named &, but I can't review it for you guys as it's only available through Eric Church's fan club on vinyl but hopefully, it gets a proper release sometime in the future. For now, we can only talk about Heart and Soul. The triple album is mainly a result of the recording process for this album. It was recorded inside of a restaurant in the mountains of North Carolina and the goal was for Church and his band to write and record a song every day until they felt like they were done. The reason they did this was because while recording Desperate Man, the album before this, Church felt like everyone got a little too comfortable and they spent too much time second-guessing themselves. With the song-a-day concept, there was no time to be comfortable and Church said it led them to taking more risks since they weren't sitting on half-finished songs for 6 or 7 months. Both albums are 9 songs long, run about 32 minutes in length, and they're both projects that can hold their own weight and are pretty individual. The only thing that really stays consistent stylistically is the production and Eric singing the songs. If you want a quick summary of both albums before I dive in, it goes like this: Heart is Church going a little more rock-heavy with some more distorted riffs and a bit more energy while Soul is a bit funkier and groovier. 

Church performing live at the Allstate Arena in Chicago, IL.

Heart with the song Heart on Fire, which is a pretty straightforward country-rock song. The lyrics hit some pretty common tropes for a country song with Eric singing about how a road is too rough for his truck and how when he met this love interest he mentions, they weren't old enough to drink but they "damn sure did it." There are also some nods to Elvis Presley and Guns n' Roses but on this song the lyrics don't really need to be groundbreaking. What keeps the song interesting is the instrumentation and Eric's performance on the song, also the chorus on this song is great with that "A TURNED UP RADIO BUT THE STATIC WAS HEAVY!" hook at the beginning, it's a pretty solid opening song. I get some Bruce Springsteen vibes from the song Heart of the Night right after this. Between Eric's writing and the drums all over the song, I can't really nail what era of Springsteen this reminds me of he was definitely an influence on this song. Especially when it comes to the chorus where Eric sings:

Put lightning in this Thunderbird till the metal comes alive
The rhythm of the road will give these horses wings to fly
And my true north is anywhere I can leave it all behind
Let’s point this thing west into the chest of the still beating heart of the night

I also love the huge bursts of cymbals, guitars, and choir voices during that last verse and the bridge on this song is fantastic as well with some a bit more ambience and Eric once again dropping some great lyrics about his dad saying that factory wages are weighing on his shoulders and he doesn't want to go out the same way as he did. Russian Roulette instrumentally reminds me of one of his earlier songs Give Me Back My Hometown to the point where it's almost annoying how similar they are, which is a bummer because I think this song is fantastic but unless it's intentional, I don't see how this one got past so many people without anyone telling Eric, "Hey, you know how similar these sound?" But like I said, this song is fantastic and is one of my favorites on here. Lyrically he's singing about getting in his truck and taking off after either a breakup or an argument or something. I'm not sure what it is but he's dead set on getting out of dodge saying that he has "lead foot in a steel toe." But the chorus provides a little twist, Church sings that nothing can stop him from leaving but a song comes on the radio as he's twisting the knob that reminds him of all the good times he had with whoever he broke up with or fought with saying:

Ain’t nothing gonna kill these horses tonight
But a song like a bullet from a dashboard light
Gettin’ shot through the speakers both left and right in stereo
Messin’ up my head, playin’ Russian Roulette with the radio  

The song instrumentally is pretty tense with some piano chords and faint guitar chords leading the song until about a minute and a half in when some drums appear. There's also a great section about 2 minutes in where there's a nice guitar solo and some more energy but it doesn't last too long as everything drops out for the bridge before the chorus kicks in one more time with the full band.

People Break is the most subdued song on the album with a super stripped-back instrumental compared to the songs prior. The lyrics on this song show a character who is, as the title suggests, broken. He's lamenting over a past lover who's moved on in life without him and he's not too happy about it. The second verse really reflects that with Eric singing:

The ice on Hawk Lake this timе of year
Broken and busted just like my bathroom mirror
So hard to see what lies there beneath
Shattered reflections like the pieces of me

The chorus on the song is pretty sad too with lines about how people break and try, how sometimes people leave and love dies, and it ends with Eric singing "Now I gotta do the hardest part / Break the news to a broken heart." Then there's Stick That In Your Country Song which was the first song released before all of these projects and it's easily one of the most compelling songs that he's ever recorded. Everything about this song is incredible and if I had been paying attention, this easily would've made it onto my Best Songs of 2020 list. It reminds me a lot of the song on the new Chris Stapleton album, Watch You Burn which actually took the #1 spot on that list. There's a similar sinister vibe to it. The song is Eric pretty much calling out Nashville and all of country music with an argument that's a common sentiment among most music fans that goes something like "I miss when country music said something." From the first verse alone, Eric is sharp and pissed off singing:

Take me on up to Detroit City
Jails are full, the factories empty
Mama's crying, young boys dying
Under that red, white, and blue still flying
Drop me off in Baltimore
Where every other window's got a plywood board
Where dreams become drugs and guns
The only way out is to shoot or run

The second verse doesn't hold much back either with Eric singing about how badly a lot of veterans in this country get treated saying that this solider is "23 going on 54" and how he's lost his friend, his sight, his hands and has a "baby girl he'll never see again." I also like Eric's writing on the third verse pretty much saying that if these other artists want to write songs like this, he doesn't want them to just phone it in or try to pander, he wants to feel it and he wants it to be authentic. Right after he sings a line about blowing the speakers out of his car the song just explodes with layered, distorted guitars, a choir behind him, and it's incredible. Eric's final verse on the song shows him talking about a school teacher who's underpaid and overworked yet she'll still be there in the crowd to support the show with Eric saying, "Shout one out to her!"

And similar to the Stapleton album, right after the fieriest song on the album, the album immediately tones it back 3 notches with the song Never Break Heart. It's another pretty straightforward country-rock song and I think it's one of the more average songs on this album. Besides a pretty solid instrumental there's nothing that really makes this track stand out. The lyrics on this song might be the blandest on the album but hey, Eric writing something kind of bland is still better than a lot of newer pop-country artists trying their hardest. I will say, to this song's benefit, I do like the positivity of the chorus with Eric telling, presumably, a son or daughter to have a strong heart. He makes a lot of different connections, I like the first one the most personally where Eric sings:

So go on and get born heart
Let your mama keep you warm heart
Get down in the dirt heart
Go on, get hurt heart
Live and let learn heart
Don’t let fear steal your brave heart
Don’t let doubt take your faith heart
It’s okay to cry
But don’t never break heart

Crazyland is a song that actually came to Eric in a dream telling Zane Lowe that he dreamed the end of the song, woke up, and told himself, "I'll remember this in the morning," and when he couldn't fall back asleep, he got up and wrote the song. The song is Eric lost in his head after a breakup and the lyrics really reflect that with Eric in the first verse singing:

That's Sad in the corner with his heart on his sleeve
Talking to Regret, who's never gonna leave
Over there playing pool is Fool and Lost
And tending bar tonight that's All My Fault
We all just hang out and listen to Blues
Sing his songs, there's nothing else to do in

I also really like the chorus with Eric sort of sitting back and reflecting saying, "Damn, times have been crazy since she walked out on me." I like the lines at the end where he says "Talking to yourself is the only plan / giving up on your last give a damn / Here in crazyland." Bunch of Nothing is a barnburner and just a super fun song to tack on near the end of the album. It has a huge "sitting around the campfire with your buddies" vibes and this song sounds like they were just having fun in the studio, I can almost hear the smile on Eric's face. The chorus of this song is fun as hell with Eric telling a friend who just got his heart broke, "Don't worry about it, I can help you forget her real quick" singing about how he knows how to find bass in a river, he knows how to make moonshine, and my personal favorite line on this song, "I know how to tune a six string Martin / And kick Saturday in the ass." And in my honest opinion, Heart doesn't end as strong as I think it could. I think Love Shine Down is a good song but it doesn't really feel like an album closer to me. I still think there's stuff to like here, mainly the lyrics and Eric's performance, but I don't know, I'm just sort of underwhelmed with how this half of the album ends. 

Soul kicks off with Rock & Roll Found Me, a pretty laid-back song with Eric singing about his introduction to Rock music and how it slipped into the cracks of his life. I like the line at the end of the chorus where he sings about when he turned up all his amps at once "the blind could see." Look Good And You Know It is a super funky and groovy song with an obvious Soul influence (roll credits) and I think Eric knocked this sound out of the park. I don't think there's too much not to like about this song. Eric's performance and his lyrics on this song are charismatic and he just kills it. There's a few funny lines in the chorus where he sings: "I ain’t cryin’ there’s just something in my eye / I ain’t dyin’ ‘cause you came in here tonight." You can really tell that the influence here comes more from a place of respect and admiration than imitation. Bright Side Girl is a song with a positive message about Eric's wife pulling him out of one of his darkest times and bringing a lot of light into his life. The lyrics here are super sweet with Eric saying she's his shelter from the storm and how she's a ray of hope at the end of a dark road. But the album really starts hitting its stride right after this song with Break It Kind Of Guy. 

This song is an undeniable banger and Eric's swagger on this song is off the charts. The lyrics are cocky as hell but who cares and Eric's outlaw brand is turned up to 11 on here saying that "when it comes to raisin' hell 'bout to take y'all to school" and near the end saying "Don't tell me how to sing it / It's my damn song." The first verse is a funny story of a man who woke up "feeling dangerous" so he loaded his gun, put some whiskey in his coffee, and called his boss's son to tell him to tell his dad that he's tired of his sh*t. The second verse is that outlaw brand really coming through saying that he's not too big on abiding by laws and following rules and dropping that "raisin' hell" line I mentioned earlier. Then right after this is Hell of a View which is probably going to rule the radio if it's not already because it's a perfect country and rock blend. The chorus on this song is fantastic and while it might suffer from having some pretty basic verses, I'll just let that slide because I love this song so much. The line at the end of the chorus where he sings "you holdin' me, holdin' you / It's a hell of a view" is just perfect and it's classic Eric Church through and through. Where I Wanna Be is two steps back when it comes to the energy and the guitars at the beginning of the song are super messy but Eric's performance makes up for it. The lyrics have a sweet sentiment, pretty much Eric saying that he's been all around the world but wherever his lover is is where he wants to be. Jenny is a nice little acoustic number but I feel like this song could've been left on the cutting room floor. There's nothing really here both instrumentally or lyrically that jumps out at me. 

I will say that Soul definitely ends stronger than Heart does. Bad Mother Trucker is a fun song about a mom who makes a living off of truck driving. He sings about how all the guys laugh when she buckles in but she smiles at them as she passes them. I also like the line about how the narrator was "raised on jerky from here to Albuquerque." And the album ends with Lynyrd Skynard Jones which is the best storytelling song on both albums. The song is about a kid who is born biracial to a single mother and a father who abandoned the family who travels through life confused until he starts playing guitar and discovers his love for music. There's a twist end on the song where the father shows up to the mom's funeral and introduces himself to the son too which is really just Eric flexing his storytelling muscle one last time. 

Church photographed outside of the studio where the album was recorded.

So overall, I came out of these albums with a very positive attitude. I knew it was gonna be tough for me to not like an Eric Church album and while there are definitely a few songs here or there that could be cut, I think these two albums work well together. If I really wanted to complain, I could say that this could easily be condensed into a 13 song album and be his best work since Chief (which I found out is already 10 years old today) but given all of the songs he dropped pre-release, I can't imagine I would've come into it as excited as I was for these two albums. I also can't wait to see how a lot of these songs pan out live as his live performances are said to be insane. I haven't had the chance to see him live yet but I'm trying to make his Fort Worth show next April a priority. So once again, solid albums, and I hope that one day, & becomes available to the general public, just so I can see what I'm missing out on. 

I would rate
by Eric Church


Eric is hitting the road starting on September 17th for the "Gather Again" Tour with tickets going on sale Friday. Full list of dates HERE.

Streaming links for both Heart and Soul are down below. CDs and Vinyl copies of both albums can be bought either on Eric's website or at your local record store.

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