We are now a few years deep into the age of the surprise album-release, but those releases usually look more like gleaming corporate machinery rumbling to life, and less like an artist wanting to give something to fans as quickly as possible. So credit Eric Church, the Nashville country fixture and maybe our greatest working rock star, with finding the goofiest, most throwbacky way possible to put his new surprise album out into the world. Church didn’t announce Mr. Misunderstood, his new album, with a midnight Tweet or a banner suddenly showing up on iTunes. Instead, he mailed out physical copies of the album, actual compact discs, to members of the Church Choir, his fan club. Who even has fan clubs anymore? And how excited must those people have been to head out to their mailboxes, open up envelopes, and find this beautifully produced new LP from the guy? I remember being really excited to get a crappy T-shirt from the Sonic Youth fan club 20 years ago; if they’d sent me an early copy of Washing Machine before announcing that Washing Machine existed, I would’ve lost my shit. So that’s a neat trick: An album rollout that’s noisy and sudden, the way these things are supposed to be, but also personal and down-home and built around gratitude for the people who identify most closely with what you do. And the same could be said of the album itself. It’s very much a product of Nashville’s music-superstar ecosystem, but it’s also warm and direct and considered. It doesn’t announce itself in any grand ways, the way Church’s 2014 album The Outsiders did, but it still kicks ass, albeit politely. I’ve had it on my phone for less than a week, and it’s already become car-stereo singalong material.
Church has been making car-radio singalongs for a long time. He’s been an arena-country star for years, and for most of his career, he’s done the things that arena-country stars are supposed to do. He’s built up his name an album at a time, getting a few singles per album to land and gradually building up a headlining set’s worth of bulletproof anthems. He’s put out songs with other country stars. He’s toured arenas, mostly in the parts of the country with robust country radio stations, though he’s also headlined Madison Square Garden and played the odd rock festival here and there. He’s shown flashes of rebellion. He had a big single with “Smoke A Little Smoke,” a song that helped make songs about weed safe for country radio, a bigger thing than you might expect. He named one of his biggest songs after Bruce Springsteen, rather than Hank Williams or whoever. He got himself kicked off of a Rascal Flatts tour for stretching his set out way too long when he opened for them in New York. But for the most part, he excelled at big, beery, soaring fists-up songs, songs that would get played on album-rock radio if country hadn’t absorbed everything that once made album-rock radio so great. He did his job, and he was good at it. But with The Outsiders, things changed. That album’s opening title track sounded like Muse and Metallica getting together to cover the Marshall Tucker Band. And while the album never reached that level of amazing stadium-rock lunacy again, it did have all these delightfully strange touches, like the jug-band funk rhythms all over “Cold One.” (Church says they were inspired by Fiona Apple.) He also had a howling multi-song suite about how Nashville is the devil, and when he played it live, a giant 40-foot inflatable devil would suddenly appear in the crowd. The Outsiders marked the moment that Church went from much-better-than-average country star to unpredictable arena king. The Outsiders sold a ton of copies and maybe helped country pull itself out of the goofy party-pop rut it had been driving itself into. It was an important album.
In a lot of ways, Mr. Misunderstood is a logical step after The Outsiders. With the last album, Church threw down the gauntlet. He carved a space for himself in the world. And now he’s free to just be. Label suits are not going to second-guess all his impulses, and that means he can just relax into the kind of music he wants to make. The album has no grandly messy experimental headfucks like “The Outsiders.” But it also doesn’t have any songs that beg to be thrown into rotation on country radio, though at least a few will certainly end up there. This feels like an album put together quickly by people who knew what they were doing, which is almost certainly what it is. It hasn’t been focus-grouped or road-tested. And while so many Nashville records have that antiseptic session-musician gleam to them, this is unmistakably the work of a group of musicians who know each other very well and who like working in a room together. Church and his band spent 20 days in the studio working on the album, which makes this basically a basement-hardcore demo by Nashville standards. He used Jay Joyce, the guy who’s produced all of his albums (as well as, like, a couple of Cage The Elephant LPs and the last Fidlar album). The album does have big-name guests, but they come from the jammy roots-rock world: Susan Tedeschi, who impersonates a raging tornado on the duet “Mixed Drinks About Feelings,” and Carolina Chocolate Drops singer Rhiannon Giddens, singing backup on “Kill A Word.”
The point of these songs isn’t really the lyrics, which are largely pretty dumb. (Church mentions the blues more often than your dad when he discovered the White Stripes.) The point, instead, is the ridiculous capacity for groove that this band has. “Chattanooga Lucy” has tribal-funk congas and itchy acoustic guitars and squelchy organs and howling gospel choirs and a huge four-on-the-floor drum stomp that only kicks in when the song is halfway done. It also has Church hitting this crazy twanged-out falsetto that he should reach for more often. It’s like a decades-late contribution to those great Light In The Attic Country Funk compilations. “Knives Of New Orleans” is a goofily strident slow-build rocker about being hunted by police after committing murder. (I’d love to hear the Mountain Goats cover it, if only to hear what John Darnielle would do with the climactic “I did what I did! / I have no regrets!” bleat.) “Record Year” is a pun-happy lament about spending post-breakup months immersing yourself in James Brown and Hank Williams and Songs In The Key Of Life, and it does quiet to loud in an efficient gears-changing way that screams professionalism rather than catharsis.
And just like The Outsiders, this one opens with its title track, which serves as a sort of statement of intent. Except where The Outsiders aimed to explode Church’s frame of reference outward in every direction, this one looks inward. Church drops the names of country-music outsider-appreciators like Elvis Costello and Jeff Tweedy, and he sings about tattoos and gin and Jackson Pollock. But he’s mostly singing about trying to figure out how to be himself in an environment that never really encouraged that. He’s singing to his teenage self, and to teenagers who were like him, holding out the example of his own country-rock stardom less as this distant “Jukebox Hero” dream and more as a comforting end goal. And it builds to this colossal na-na-na singalong and triple-guitar flare-up that just kills me everytime. “They tried to file my points, sand my edges, and I just grew out my hair,” Church sings. But now that he’s made the point that nobody’s going to sand his edges, he’s free to relax into an album of comfortable, worn-in Southern rock like this. It’s not an opus, the way The Outsiders was. It’s a casual and relatively soft-spoken piece of work. But after listening to almost nothing else for the past few days, I feel like it’ll have the same staying power as The Outsiders did.
Oddly enough, Church released Mr. Misunderstood at the exact right moment for another burly country-music insider-outsider to come along and upstage him completely. Last week’s Country Music Awards were basically set up as a coronation ceremony for Chris Stapleton, the burly mountain-man songwriter who won an armful of awards and duetted with Justin Timberlake twice. Stapleton got a crazy CMA bump, and his six-month-old Traveler sold nearly twice as many copies as Mr. Misunderstood. Stapleton, like Jamey Johnson or maybe even Sturgill Simpson, makes a gruff and raw and damaged form of country music. Church’s music nods toward that, but he doesn’t really do that. Instead, he makes the big, overwhelming, pound-the-roof-of-your-car jams. That’s valid and important, too. And with Mr. Misunderstood, he’s knocked out one of the most understatedly badass albums I’ve heard all year.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Justin Bieber’s sleek EDM-pop atonement Purpose.
• Ty Dolla $ign’s adventurously nasty R&B suite Free TC.
• Oneohtrix Point Never’s terrifying drone-spazz nightmare Garden Of Delete.
• Anna Von Hausswolff’s insanely heavy gothed-out organ-drone The Miraculous.
• Le1f’s transgressive club-rap bug-out Riot Boi.
• Jeff Lynne’s ELO’s grand studio-rock return Alone In The Universe.
• JEFF The Brotherhood’s fuzzed-up lo-fi psych-rocker Global Chakra Rhythms.
• Jeezy’s portentous street-rap sermon Church In These Streets.
• Marc McGuire’s ecstatic droner Beyond Belief.
• BOOTS’ auteurist, all-over-the-map AQUARIA.
• Triathalon’s ’90s-indie surf-rocker Nothing Bothers Me.
• Cool Uncle’s self-titled throwback-R&B debut.
• Tame Impala side project GUM’s liquid psych album Glamorous Damage.
• Givers’ buoyant psych-popper New Kingdom.
• DJ Paypal’s frenetic digital jazz album Sold Out.
• King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s full-bodied psych-rocker Paper Maché Dream Balloon.
• Goldmund’s shimmering, etheral Sometimes.
• Pajama People’s dreamy, decadent synthpopper Leave Yourself Alone.
• TIGUE’s abstract art-rock debut Peaks.
• Beliefs’ propulsive shoegazer Leaper.
• Swings’ warmly melancholy Sugarwater.
• Revenge’s “war-metal” stomper Behold.Total.Rejection.
• Dragged Into Sunlight and Gnaw Their Tongues’ collaborative death-sludge wallow NV.
• A Sunny Day In Glasgow’s Planning Weed Like It’s Acid / Life Is Loss double EP.
• Frankie Cosmos’ Fit Me In EP.
• The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart’s Hell EP.
• Tomas Barfod’s Glory EP.
• Chain Gang Grave’s Bury Them And Keep Quiet EP.
• Yak’s No EP.
• Billie Marten’s As Long As EP.
• Baeb Rxxth’s OMW EP.
• Fakear’s Light Bullet EP
• Kurt Cobain’s Montage Of Heck: The Home Recordings sketch collection.