Mr. Misunderstood: Eric Church Is Country Music’s Ambiguous Hero

Eric Church Mr. Misunderstood RulesThe best heroes never announce they’re about to save you; they simply swoop in, scoop you up in their arms, and run. That’s essentially what Eric Church has done with the surprise release of Mr. Misunderstood. It’s been an odd year for country music fans, as the genre seeks to grapple with a visible, calcified sexism and the onslaught of pop and hip-hop infiltrating its traditional sounds. The line between reactionary and traditionalist is a fine one, and while albums like Chris Stapleton’s Traveller and Ashley Monroe’s The Blade stood out, a soupy mix of tired radio country and adamantly not radio country dominated the playing field in 2015. This dichotomy feels more and more unavoidable: Either you’re a real country artist in it for the roots, or you’re a demon interloper who incorporates poisonous pop sounds into the precious lifeblood of true country music. It’s reductionist and exhausting, and frankly, quite boring after a while.

So it’s rare to get an artist who stays so close to country’s roots while fearlessly incorporating new sounds. Mr. Misunderstood does just that. Church’s last album The Outsiders was top-heavy like a truck loaded down with equipment for too many activities. Some of these playful forays paid off–“The Joint” is a funky, revenge-flipped, bar-burning jam–and some sunk like dead weight (“Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess Of Darkness),” I’m looking at you). Mr. Misunderstood is a streamlined bit of country quicksilver; the rare record that flows by without a trace of self-consciousness. Swampy zydeco sidles up to jubilant gospel and barroom ballads, all laced with modern references and Church’s wry, ever-present rebellion. If The Outsiders strove to emphasize Church’s individualism, Mr. Misunderstood actually captures it, foregoing all the fanfare and posturing in favor of the music itself.

Working with Jay Joyce, the same producer who did The Outsiders, Church has learned how to refine his wide-ranging tastes and channel them in eclectic, surprising ways. On “Chattanooga Lucy,” he flips into a falsetto so high I thought he had a guest vocalist on the track the first time through, then, it busts into a motorboat-powered southern rocker. Similarly, “Kill A Word” is lined with a burst of female harmonies that temper the brutal imagery. A track like this showcases Church’s deft songwriting powers, he imbues all the savagery of human behavior into the arbitrary words used to describe it, as if language is what ties us to the stake of pain, as if diction burns us up in a blaze of hatred. Yet, there is power in his desire to annihilate the words of damage that hang heavy over our lifetimes. The veiled, violent altruism splits the difference between feel-good and savior outlaw, an example of how Church forces the listener to grapple with ambiguity instead of letting things fall easily into black and white columns.

Because of the nature of surprise releases, fans will arrive at their own standout tracks without the nudging of radio play or single selection, but “Record Year” seems like an obvious outlier to my ear. It’s a breakup song about the joy of rediscovering yourself–specifically through music–and references any respectable bourbon enthusiast’s favorite John Lee Hooker song within the first minute. “Love has a funny way of keeping score, and your leaving lit up my scoreboard,” he sings, upending the notion that losing love reflects whether or not you’re winning at the game of life. Still, there’s no posturing here, he acknowledges his loneliness while recognizing that being alone gave him a gift that love itself couldn’t provide.

Last night the Country Music Awards honored Chris Stapleton with their Album of the Year award, along with Best New Artist and Male Vocalist of the Year. Stapleton is a long-time songwriter for the likes of country pop lounge lizard Luke Bryan, and has a long history as part of staple bluegrass act the Steeldrivers. Traveller is his debut solo record, a labor of love that sprang from his grief over the death of his father. It falls in line with the bastion of new country artists who hew to traditional sounds without sinking into reactionary territory—Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and arguably, Church himself among them. If the powers that be are breaking rank to highlight this studied, gunpowder-and-tears stoicism, Church’s album will be met with similar gusto. Or maybe he’ll be misunderstood. After all, most heroes go unrecognized.

Mr. Misunderstood is out now via EMI Records Nashville.

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