Look at the list of song titles on country star Eric Church’s new album — “Drink in My Hand,” “Like Jesus Does,” “Hungover & Hard Up,” “Jack Daniels,” etc. -– and there may not be much reason to suspect he’s going way out of his way to avoid country’s beer-in-a-small-town tropes. And he isn’t.
But, more than his dirt-road-loving contemporaries, Church has an ear for the poetry of the sticks. And unlike, say, Jason Aldean, some of his music even sounds like something more intrinsically country than heavy metal with a Southern accent and a ball cap. It’s not just his dialect that’s in the right place, but his actual heart.
“Chief,” his third effort, is by no means a great country album, but it comes closer than most because Church has a good idea of which direction greatness lies. There’s no mistaking that he’s absorbed a ton of early Steve Earle, so he knows a good line when he or his co-writers come up with one, whether it’s the metaphors of “the first snap of the last straw” and “Dreams are like a knife when you’re hanging by a thread,” or just the sheer country comedy of a refrain like, “She got a rock, I’m getting’ stoned.”
Thankfully, there’s none of the South-uber-alles xenophobia that’s infected a lot of the other young male country records of the past few years. The first single, “Homeboy,” does gently mock a brother who’s gone off to the big city with his “hip-hop hat and his pants on the ground,” but it’s really a tender prodigal son lament, not a self-protective regional pride anthem.
He stoops to patronize, a little, on “Keep On,” an invitation to fight over a fair maiden in a bar. But as a songwriter, Church imbues it with just enough lyrical twists — the way it veers between a sensual staredown and a violent one — that you can easily forgive its sexually imperialistic belligerence.
When he titles a song “Springsteen,” there’s a level of hokum as he reels off various ‘80s Bruce titles in the service of remembering the high-school girl that got away. But at least he’s being honest about modern country’s truer influences, unlike the guys who perform tunes titled “Johnny Cash” that bear no resemblance to the country icons being name-checked.
On the album’s most interesting and provocative song, “Country Music Jesus,” he’s bold enough to propose that country music has gotten stale, if not sinful, and needs a genre savior to rise from these streets. Church is not that country messiah, himself, but the fact that he’s smart enough to realize we could use one makes him smarter than most.