While the wildfire(ball) of bro-country raged it’s biggest flames, Eric Church remained one of the few country boy stars to not succumb to the allures of truck sponsorship, songs about wanting Yeti coolers or of genuinely seeming like a sly recasting of a frozen hair metal star melted into a modern country performer. Unlike your state lines and “Chases,” Church never needed to pivot after Chris Stapleton brought Traveller to the Country Mainstream and everyone suddenly got so serious. Church’s 2014 album, The Outsiders, was a big-scope country rock record, Black Oak Arkansas filtered through Travis Tritt, and 2015’s Mr. Misunderstood had songs about being an outcast and how rad vinyl records are. Which is to say he never needed to change when Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson pushed country music out of songs like “Cruise”; he never made those kinds of songs anyway.
Church has remained on the continuum of country somewhere between the Brothers Osborne and Stapleton, his albums reliably good to great — each one with four to five songs filled with hard-learned lessons you can apply to your own life — but not containing the philosophical underpinnings that made someone like Simpson into a star. That ends with the two-week, three-album release of Heart and Soul, collectively considered Church’s seventh album, along with the fan-club only mini-album &. The Heart & Soul album is Church’s farthest-reaching album yet, running the gamut in all his possible styles — rock, honky tonk, big broad country, light doo-wop and even soul music — and boasting some of the strongest songwriting of his career. Neatly separated between matters of the heart and, well, soul, Church is defiant, questioning, searching and fired up, hammering these 24 songs home with conviction.
The first release, Heart, is broadly an album speaking to matters of the heart, whether that’s the love you have for a dad who’s out of work, love for the tenuousness of existence or how you need to have love in your heart to properly reach a country audience. “Heart of the Night” rides like it’s rattling down E. Street, before a mid-song tempo change that accompanies its tale of a world that has forgotten people who give it their all. “People Break,” one of the most quietly devastating songs in the Church oeuvre, is about the unpredictability of heartbreak, and “Love Shine Down” sounds like it was airlifted from a milkshake joint in 1955. Heart’s highlight, however, is “Stick That In Your Country Song,” this year’s Grammy winner for Best Country Song, which tackles the way that songs in the genre don’t really address the needs or concerns of the community that supports them: When was the last time a country song talked about manufacturing jobs disappearing, Church asks, not entirely rhetorically. He was always a vocal critic of the “let’s get drunk and drive tractors” nonchalance of the bro-country era, but here he says the quiet part loud, to great effect.
All 24 songs of Heart & Soul were recorded and written in one run during COVID quarantine, Church holing up with a rotating cast of musicians and songwriters, and deciding to not stop when he hit 11, 16 or 20 songs. He cleaved the songs into nine on Heart, six on the fanclub-only &, and nine on Soul, which comes out April 23. Soul is concerned with the things that make a man, from the discovery of the music he’d make in his life (“Rock & Roll Found Me”), how a relationship can make you feel whole (“Hell of a View”), to a heartfelt ode to his mom (“Bad Mother Trucker”) that recreates her misspelling of respect during Aretha Franklin’s signature song. But “Where I Wanna Be,” a barhouse ballad, is the second album’s highlight, as Church has maybe never sung more beautifully, a genuine delicateness in his voice he doesn’t always show easily. The strength of the back half of Soul alone cements Church’s vision of just recording until it was time to stop, not because he “had an album.” He was always a special performer, and album craftsman, but here he went to a different plane, and came back with his finest album.