Country star Church is an analog kind of guy, but he doesn’t start his album off with the sound of faux crackling vinyl, as a number of performers before him have for old time’s sake. It’s tape hiss you hear at the beginning of “The Snake,” the leadoff track on “Desperate Man.” Presumably we hear this background sound (which goes away for the rest of the record) is there because that raw, acoustic blues original was recorded on old-school equipment and not just for affectation’s sake. But in purely symbolic terms, it’s appropriate for the era(s) Church is evoking for his sixth studio collection: The entirety of “Desperate Man” makes for an agreeable 1970s mix tape.
On some tracks, Church offers a meaty, minimalistic, funky version of the blues-rock he grew up on; leaning into his full road band on the spirited second number, “Hangin’ Around,” he even throws in what sounds like a clavinet (although the exact types of keyboards used on the album go uncredited). Later on, he turns the Radio Shack receiver volume knob down to get into a good amount of finger-picky country-folk. In the early stretch of his career, some of us had a hard time not being suspicious that he was planning to devote his career to cultivating a 1970s-style country outlaw persona. So it’s been a happy development to see him let other influences creep more into his music. He doesn’t just want to be Waylon Jennings, after all; he wants to be a combination of the James Gang and Don McLean, too.
“Hippie Radio” is the most McLean-esque number, and it may be “American Pie” that Church has in mind when he mentions growing up on, among other things, “songs about… the birth of rock and roll.” The tune uses a Pontiac car radio as a device to push buttons across generations — first referring to hearing his dad sing along to “Carry On My Wayward Son” (not actually a hippie-era song, but close enough for a kid), then rocking out to Billy Idol and “Werewolves of London” as a teen, then reverting to “Cat’s in the Cradle” as he and his wife bring their newborn boy home from the hospital. It’s as close to corny as “Desperate Man” gets, but you believe his fandom as much as you buy the sentiments attached; not every current country star could convince us that he knew the titles of all those oldies and had a bucket-seat memory fastened to each of them.
Speaking of radio, there’s hardly a track here that won’t be the best thing on the country format whenever his label gets to releasing six or so of them as singles. Ironically, the first radio song that’s out now, the title track, is probably the weakest number here. With its familiar-sounding rhythm and “woo woo woo” backup vocals, “Desperate Man” the song seems to have been fashioned as a cheerful remake of “Sympathy for the Devil,” and it’s the one spot on the album where the homage to sounds past seems a little forced. Beyond that: few complaints. I might have advised him that it’s still too soon to title a country-rock song “Heart Like a Wheel” if it wasn’t originated by Linda Ronstadt, but the 6/8 hick-R&B ballad he’s fashioned under that same name is so delicious that it feels churlish to complain. Most of the time, he’s really not tied to a specific antecedent — just memories of when rock and roll could be both feel-good and good, and of when country didn’t feel like it was an all-male roster pandering to an all-female listenership.
Church still has a bad attitude at times, but not in the way that suggests he has anything to prove anymore. The opening “The Snake” is a nasty allegory — maybe alluding to Church’s F-both-political-parties inclinations — that has him sounding a bit like that other evoker of copperheads, Steve Earle. At the end of the album, he delves a bit more into traditional country, as “Drowning Man” and “Jukebox and a Bar” both quietly salute the very time-honored tradition of finding solace or sorriness in the bottom of a bottle. “Some of It” is a song about hard fought life lessons that may remind a veteran country radio listener of Bobby Pinson’s great minor 2005 hit, “Ask Me How I Know”… even before you look at the credits and see that Pinson himself co-wrote the song.
But the most charming picks are some of the optimistic songs in the middle. Best is “Higher Wire,” which has Church singing in his highest voice against nothing but a sweetly clangy electric guitar. There’s one good reason Church could never be Waylon: swagger aside, he has too pretty a voice for the job.
Church is being a traditionalist of sorts here, but it’s a traditionalism that spans a good deal of different country and rock throwback subgenres and still leaves room for sonic updates; you never felt in the ‘70s like you were inside a bass drum the way Jay Joyce’s production sometimes has you imagining here. It’s throwback-y in spades, but bears such a personal stamp in a world of cookie-cutter male competitors, that it still feels like Church is moving country forward.
EMI Records Nashville
Produced by Jay Joyce