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'Desperate Man' review: Eric Church's perfect album for desperate times

Eric Church's "Desperate Man."

Eric Church's "Desperate Man." Credit: EMI Nashville

ERIC CHURCH

"Desperate Man"

BOTTOM LINE Desperate times call for “Desperate Man.”

Eric Church’s new album, “Desperate Man” (EMI Nashville), is the rarest of country records, one that reflects and comments on the present.

He opens with the stunning parable “The Snake,” a dark commentary about the current state of America’s two-party political system, where Church snarls, “Rattlesnake, copperhead, either one of them, kill you dead / We stay hungry, they get fed . . . And the whole world’s burning down.”

When he sings “I’ve learned that the monsters ain’t the ones beneath the bed” in “Monsters,” Church may be referring to the shooter who killed 58 and injured more than 800 at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas a year ago, where he was one of the headliners. But he is definitely referring to the feeling that sometimes the monsters win and that his response is the cautious hope of “I keep my faith intact and make sure my prayers are said.”

It’s a testament to Church’s skill as a songwriter and a singer that “Desperate Man” doesn’t sugarcoat anything, but still maintains a positive outlook, even if, as he does in “Drowning Man,” all he can do is offer an escape. And in “Solid,” Church praises resilience, by declaring, “I might look like a mess to you, but I’m solid.”

He manages this difficult balancing act by drawing on more soul and blues than he has in the past, calling to mind the Allman Brothers Band, as much as the new country traditionalists like Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson. The good-time soul groove of “Hanging Around” even draws out an unexpectedly playful vocal performance from Church, while the wistful “Hippie Radio” is a gorgeous nostalgic trip through “Carry on My Wayward Son,” Billy Idol and even a nod to Harry Chapin.

And the world Church conjures in the sweet, blues-tinged “Heart Like a Wheel” or “Jukebox and a Bar” offers proof that the monsters don’t always win.

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