I’m sure Mr Church is not the only musician to have made productive use of the studio during lockdown. Ms Swift released two whole albums recently, and now Church follows suit (with an extra fan club only offering covering the ‘and’ between Heart and Soul).
First a complaint: I deplore the modern tendency to pre-release almost half of an album’s tracks. I know it’s current marking wisdom, but I’d much rather have not heard several of the tracks in advance. On the other hand, I get it: in the here-today, gone-tomorrow streaming era, an album could drop and disappear before half of the audience sits up to pay attention. It’s all a big wash, as my friend Roy said 25 years ago. It has only become bigger and washier with time.
Everybody follows along to varying degrees, so I understand that it might take one, two, three, four pre-released tracks to get on radio playlists and to swim into the blurred vision of music consumers.
The first to be dropped in its complete state was Heart, with Soul following a week later. Three of the nine tracks on Heart feature the word ‘Heart’ in the title, and at 31 minutes, it’s an album of traditional length, which you’ve got to recognise as another savvy marketing move. Thirty-one minutes is a perfect length for a workout session, or a commute to work.
The record kicks off with ‘Heart on Fire’, which does all the things you want a country rocker to do. Starts with a steady rolling beat on the main verse, lifts it up for a B-section, and then keeps developing and building intensity, until by the beginning of the 3rd minute it feels like a different song. Some interaction with the BVs, a tight, distorted guitar solo, followed by a short breakdown, and then everything turned up to 11 for the coda, which turns out not to be the end, because there’s another breakdown and a muted repeat of the first verse. It’s a journey.
Eric Church seems to be able to do this over again. His songs have a pleasing quality of feeling wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts. Like Beatles songs or McCartney medleys, they pull together sections; which is not to say that Eric Church is Beatle-ish (see below), but that he and his songwriting team are able to put disparate ideas together and make them feel composed and complete. The widescreen ‘Heart of the Night’ feels like a mini rock opera, and has five songwriters. It’s great.
Elsewhere he can sound elegiac, as on ‘Russian Roulette’ (just the three songwriters), a slower tempo number built around piano and hammond organ, which after two and a half minutes goes a little bit Meat Loaf and then smashes into an anthemic finale which makes you long for a concert hall and the chance to wave your hands. Playing Russian Roulette with the radio, he sings.
The pick of the ‘Heart’ songs is ‘Never Break Heart’, which is quintessential Eric Church: a hooky country rock song that puts me in mind of the Stones’ Sticky Fingers from fifty years ago. Church, like Jagger, has a voice which blends brilliantly with backing vocals, like gravel in fondue. And it’s peak Mick Taylor era Stones that works as a kind of touchstone here, because like Jagger, Church can turn on the soul and the falsetto when he wants to, and I think his voice has a similar timbre to growly Mick. Another, later, comparison would be Some Girls from 1978, which has a similar mixture of rock, soul, and country. Eric Church could do justice to ‘Beast of Burden’.
I bought my first Church album around the time of his classic single ‘Springsteen’, and although I was an instant fan of that number, I wasn’t sure about the rest. He was one of those vocalists, I thought, who feels the need to make sounds all the time, including bopping along with guitar solos. I resented this: let other people have their time to shine, Eric.
In hindsight, this was an aberration, and anyway, an Eric Church album isn’t where you expect to find the virtuoso guitar picking you’ll find in other parts of the country firmament. Which is not to say the musicianship isn’t great: just that this is not back porch showing off.
Soul is a minute longer than Heart, but has the same nine tracks, though there are not three (or any) songs with ‘Soul’ in the title. But there is soul, and the (blue) album has an entirely different feel to the red one. My picks from this record are ‘Look Good and You Know It’ (think Solomon Burke) and ‘Where I Wanna Be’, both of which take their rock cues from 60s soul.
You will find Eric Church and Soul under ‘Country’ on Apple Music, but while I love the broad church of country music and have no particular problem with this, it does seem particularly absurd. This genre-blurring is essentially what rock music is, so if you like rock music (and I mean proper rock music, from the 70s), this is great.