Album Review: Eric Church — Chief
On the press release that accompanies Eric Church’s new album Chief, the singer describes his lead single “Homeboy” as an amalgamation of sounds that thematically and sonically could be “three or four different songs.”
The same could be said for the album as a whole, which sounds like it could be three or four different records by three or four different artists. And while Church continues to push his own boundaries, the result here is a disjointed collection that offers little insight into his artistic manifesto, other than loud and tough.
Unlike 2009’s Carolina, which benefited from the strong thread of rambling restlessness that ran through its songs, Chief skips from influence to influence and genre to genre without any clear progression. The listener begins to feel like a ball in a pinball machine, bouncing from country to light rock to metal to bluegrass and back again.
Case in point: “Country Music Jesus” opines a missing country music leader to the sound of a heavy metal guitar riff heavily reminiscent of Collective Soul. Fun wordplay like “Some longhaired hippie prophet preaching from the book of Johnny Cash” transitions into a bluegrass-tinged romp, before ultimately winding down into a missed opportunity. The juxtaposition of the at-odds instrumentation comes off as an off-kilter frame for Church and Jeremy Spillman’s hopeful picture of country music redemption.
From there, a handful of radio-friendly singles are mixed in with an ode to Bruce Springsteen, twangy Deliverance-worthy songs heavy on the “bom bom bom boms” and the lead single’s social commentary strive for diversity but get lost along the way.
Sonically, the result is oftentimes more shoutlaw than outlaw, the dubiously dubbed title often attached to the singer by everyone from press to radio to fans. Church and producer Jay Joyce inorganically rely on studio tricks and over-processed vocals to spice up the singer’s often laser-focused lyrics. His words – like “Hungover & Hard Up’s” potent “Living in the lost and found/Round and round, up and down/I’m tired of this seesaw merry-go-round/So Mary you can go to hell – are overshadowed by the noise.
Still, the one bright side of all the confusion is that the album’s best tracks stand out like gold. “Hungover & Hard Up” offers hard-hitting imagery of a long-dead relationship that’s following the protagonist like a shadow, and showcases the singer at his finest. Similarly, “Jack Daniels” lets Church’s well-honed live performance skills to come through in a jam band that’s powerful and direct without being silly.
And despite its meandering, Chief ends on an oddly charming note: “Over When it’s Over” utilizes repetition against a laid-back, quiet arrangement that make the most of Church’s patented mix of anger and regret. This is where the singer shines most, allowing his lyrics to twist and turn all on their own without novelty echoes or auto-tuning and letting his twangy voice to rhyme “ain’t” and “can’t” to pleasing effect.
Overall, Chief continues Church’s spotty output of brash proclamations mixed in with glimpses of honest stories by someone who holds country music’s past and present in very high regards.
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