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ERIC CHURCH: "DESPERATE MAN" IN DESPERATE TIMES

The wild, terse strumming … the female dervish “woo OOOH”s … the snaking percussion/shaker undertow … the gospel piano rolls … The tension is palpable long before Eric Church wails, “I’ve seen the Joshua Tree/Got down on my knees/To the Virgin Mother of Prayer…”

Evoking the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” with its sweep and swoop, “Desperate Man” (EMI Nashville) is a song for the moment. In a world that daily seems to be coming off its moorings with school shootings, political unrest, greed, cortisol-baiting media and bullying seeming the new norm, this is a song that musically as well as lyrically captures the Zeitgeist pressure cooker we’re all—like it or not—trapped in.

Written with Texas firebrand Ray Wylie Hubbard (“(Up Against the Wall) Redneck Mother,” “Snake Farm,” “Drunken Poet’s Dream”), Church seeks to capture the fraught nature inflicting the hearts of plenty of decent people watching a world out of control. Drawing on themes of faith in the battle of good and evil, there is a strong vein of mysticism to the lyrics.

The second verse proclaims:
“Fortune teller told me
‘No more last chances,’
‘You’ve got no future at all.’
Woman, I ain’t listening
To black-hearted gypsy,
And a crucifix through a bedroom wall.”

It’s obvious that, in the singer’s hands, there will be no cure, no faith left unturned in the quest for some kind of salvation. Not just for Church, but also for us all. That’s the thing about the outlying country superstar: He’s not leaving anyone behind.

That commitment to the Church Choir (as his fans are known) leads to more direct superstar-to-core engagement than almost any act in country music today. Indeed, his recent album announcement came in a self-shot video straight to their inbox —and let the media work from there. Direct, real, true: a bond they can believe in.

And if we’ve arrived at a crossroads where it’s “human beware,” Church is raising not just a flare, but a torch. Not offering answers, because it’s never that clear cut and simple, but raging, “I won’t stop until everything’s been exhausted.”

Beyond anxious, angry, distressed, and even reckless, there is a boiling point. That molten place where it’s only a matter of time is the critical mass America is fast approaching. Church sees it. He’s tapping into that extreme reality with a fist to the sky, and a bold assessment of where he/we/you/I are.

Half-yowl, half-acid, but completely self-possessed, he declares in a nasal bark, to capture the truth of his being:

“Hey, I’m a half-cocked, full-tilt, scarred hands to the hilt,  don’t-push-me grown-ass man,
Yeah flashing light caution, careful where you cross son.”

It sounds like lofty stuff. At a time when country radio’s never been more a panacea of trucks, girls, beers and good times, this could be a Don Quixote play: tilting at corporate America with the truth they’re trying to smother with so much Madison Avenue revelry.

There’s just one problem. “Desperate Man” rocks. Hard. With swagger.

Eric Church ain’t playing. He—and producer Jay Joyce—have come loaded for bear, and they’ve got the bullets to get the job done.

Working with his road band, Church digs in with equal parts restraint to heighten the pull, zeal to capture the passion and surge to draw on the primal part of rock, soul and everything the Stones have ever stood for. Danger isn’t something to trifle with; you can end up looking silly. But with enough room on the track to let each instrument rise, let the lyrics snap, sting and propel the rhythms to shove you forward, there’s no escaping this track.

Not that you’d want to. In a world where rock & roll, yes, rock & roll, may once again be the new frontier, this is unapologetic stuff. Just enough of a lash, properly deployed, with the notion it’s our souls at stake.

By the time the almost naked chorus rolls in, you’re breathless. It’s not a joke, it’s a tour de force. Then the track crashes back in, the culmination of too much and not enough.

I could say “It’s only rock & roll, but I like it” as a way of endorsing “Desperate Man,” but that’s selling it short. Right now, the urgency of the message, the need for people to stand up and be counted, makes this record the stealth delivery of a rallying cry fit for Johnny Cash.

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