Eric Church

Desperate Man

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Don't take the title Desperate Man too seriously. Eric Church doesn't sound at the end of his rope on his sixth album; he sounds settled in his skin, assured that he doesn't have to try too hard. Which isn't to say he doesn't try on Desperate Man -- quite the opposite, actually. Church may not be working with a grand concept, the way he did on 2015's semi-autobiographical statement of purpose, Mr. Misunderstood, but he does stretch himself musically, threading elements of funk and soul into his signature sinewy outlaw country. Such sounds aren't foreign to Church but he's emphasizing these sounds, naming the album after a thick, swampy collaboration with Ray Wylie Hubbard -- a country maverick he name-checked on "Mr. Misunderstood" -- and front-loading the album with such similar rockers as "The Snake" and "Hangin' Around." Elsewhere, he slides into a simmering Southern soul groove, epitomized by the bluesy "Higher Wire," which dodges clich├ęs due to its spare, echoey production. That's a small touch, but it speaks volumes about what Church is doing with Desperate Man. Instead of going big, the way he did on 2014's burly Outsiders, he's keeping things small, a decision that highlights the many savvy ways he expands American musical traditions even as he adheres to them. Perhaps these variations on themes are subtle, but this confident sense of sonic adventure -- when combined with Church's expert craft -- results in a satisfying album.

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