Arriving after the deliberately overblown The Outsiders -- an outlaw album pumped up on steroids, gaining its resonance through its slow songs -- Mr. Misunderstood feels like a correction: a swift, modest album shorn of excess, released without an iota of pre-release hype. Devoid of the arena rock feints that dogged The Outsiders -- there are no two-part metallic jams, no salutations to damn rock & roll -- Mr. Misunderstood is hardly a back-to-basics move or a refutation of his over-amplified indulgences. Rather, this 2015 record pulls together the strands Church left hanging on his 2014 set, never shuffling country and rock -- or blues or soul, for that matter -- into their own categories. Church creates his own Americana, pulling from the classic rock wallpapering Middle America and the modern country that runs through the sports bars of the suburbs, making nods to swamp funk and soul along the way, but when he tips his cap to Elvis Costello, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Jeff Tweedy, it's as telling as the Jackson Pollock allusion a few lines later: where other country is provincial, Church embraces the world without repudiating his home. Certainly, there's a strong sense of family flowing throughout Mr. Misunderstood -- he's married to a dream, but his mistress is music; he writes about one son, but puts another on the cover -- but Church takes a cue from "Give Me Back My Hometown," favoring specificity over broad clichés. Take the title track, where he tells a tale that feels autobiographical but he's seeing himself within a teenage outsider stuck in the back of class: here, he opens the door upon the possibility that the rest of the songs on the record -- the tales of heartbreak and longing, maybe even the stories of love and family -- are characters, not confession. Either way, Church's songs are anchored with an authoritative sense of sentiment and place, and they're brought to life by the precise roar of the Eric Church Band. No longer overwhelming with sheer volume, they dig into the funk of "Chattanooga Lucy" and race their leader to the conclusion of "Mr. Misunderstood," but they shine by maintaining the mournful soul of "Round Here Buzz" or by building the tension of "Knives of New Orleans" or by keeping the Susan Tedeschi duet "Mixed Drinks About Feelings" at a sweet, sad simmer. Where The Outsiders was designed to dazzle, Mr. Misunderstood is built for the long haul: it settles into the soul, its pleasures immediate but also sustained.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
feat: Susan Tedeschi