Sound — 8
Eric Church slowly progressed through three albums early in his career. Chief is often hailed as his best, and perhaps it is, but nevertheless he felt the need to try to top it and in that effort he fell into a try-hard phase and delivered what is easily one of the most disappointing albums in recent memory. "The Outsiders" was all tough guy schlock with no cohesiveness and the worst lyrics of his career. It was a mixtape, not an album, and not a good one at that. Each song was different and while that in itself is good, each nearly fell into different genres as well. That lack of familiarity between tracks resulted in a playlist instead of an album. Thankfully, "Mr. Misunderstood" is not in the same boat. This album picks up where "Chief" left off, with truthful and honest lyrics and perfect instrumental arrangements. The cohesion is present from song to song, and while these songs are distinctively different - sonically and lyrically - they feel like the belong together. All in all, I'd call this record a Heartland rock album with some country, blues, and bluegrass influence, with the one exception being "Chattanooga Lucy," which is a bit funky and interesting. Overall, the album makes its way from Point A to Point B in a way that makes sense, and he needed that in order to recapture fans he lost with his last album.
Eric Church is still driving the "hey, I'm different!" bus a little too enthusiastically. Any studied music fan knows of his college degree and his ability to market himself. Nevertheless, he comes off as genuinely invested in making sure quality music is still available to the general American music fan in a day and age where the general American music fan is a slobbering moron getting off on key words like tailgate, beer, girl, dirt road, etc. 10 years from now when Bro-Country and Metro-Bro are things people don't even remember, and artists like Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett are long forgotten skid marks on the drawers of country music, we'll have artists like Eric Church to thank for calling out mainstream Nashville for pandering to the lowest common denominator.
Lyrics — 8
Lyrically, Eric Church has never been better than on "Mr. Misunderstood." He was very solid through the first three albums of his career, then took a sharp left turn into bravado-filled nonsense on "The Outsiders." Thankfully, he has returned to form on this album and many of the songs have lyrical highlights. I'd say the best lyrical song on the album is "Kill a Word." It's the anti-bullying song that songwriters have been yearning to write for a long time and has now come to fruition courtesy of Eric Church, Luke Dick and Jeff Hyde. If you listen to one song from this album, make sure it's "Kill a Word."
Overall Impression — 8
Here's a song by song review:
1. "Mr. Misunderstood" - A good message with very interesting tempo changes. A solid first single, but I hope this is the last time Eric Church tries to prove that he's different. We get it, buddy. Just be yourself and stop telling us.
2. "Mistress Named Music" - Eric Church is at his best with stripped down arrangements and this is a great example of that. It's one of the stronger songs on the album, but not a standout.
3. "Chattanooga Lucy" - Imagine what Thomas Rhett and Eric Paslay are trying to do with "Crash and Burn" and "High Class" but well done lyrically and instrumentally - that's "Chattanooga Lucy." I commend Eric Church and Jay Joyce (producer) for doing this experiment correctly after hearing his peers ripping off other genres and sounding awkward and clumsy while doing so. Watch out for the high notes he hits in this song.
4. "Mixed Drinks About Feelings" (feat. Susan Tedeschi) - One thing Eric Church is known for is giving opportunities to mostly unknown talent like Joanna Cotton and Valerie June and giving them a platform to expand their fanbase. Susan Tedeschi is fantastic in this song, and the lyrics are very moving. Here's another strong track, but the following song is the first standout on the album.
5. "Knives of New Orleans" - Wow. I never thought I'd hear so much Jason Isbell in an Eric Church song, but it looks like EC is paying attention to Americana's current king (I knew he was an Americana listener when he had Ryan Bingham join him on stage to perform "The Weight"). Knives... is about a man on the run from the law in the French Quarter, and the story comes to life through lyrics and a great arrangement. Arguably the best song on the album, with one competitor later on.
6. "Round Here Buzz" - A well known story done very well when re-imagined by Eric Church and his co-writers. Not a standout but a definite candidate to find a spot on radio and it'd be better than about 99% of what's there right now.
7. "Kill a Word" - Oh my goodness - this is what Shinedown took a swing at with "Bully" but missed. "Kill a Word" is well-written, catchy, and believable. It is Eric Church's best lyrical number to date. Wow. I really don't know what else to say. This is my favorite tune on the album.
8. "Holdin' My Own" - Probably the least impressive song on the album once "Chattanooga Lucy" grows on the listener. I wouldn't call this a dud but it's barely up to par.
9. "Record Year" - Another lyrical highlight with name-dropping that seems legitimate and not a plea for attention. I have a feeling this will find radio time as well, and that's OK with me.
10. "Three Year Old" - We all knew about this song because he's been performing it live, but what a nice tribute to his wife and kids and the wisdom in innocence. Probably the album's third standout.
Overall, "Mr. Misunderstood" is one of my favorite albums to be released this year, and in a year where great albums like "Something More Than Free" and "Traveller" have been released, that's saying something about the kind of company Eric Church has the potential to join if he finally decides to completely vacate his place in the mainstream. If I were to compare "Mr. Misunderstood" to any recent albums, I'd say I hear a lot of Will Hoge's "Small Town Dreams" in this album, so much so that I'm surprised Hoge wasn't a co-writer on any of the tracks. As of right now, "Mr. Misunderstood" has cemented Eric Church next to Kacey Musgraves as mainstream country's two best lyricists. These kinds of artists give me hope that some day I'll hear mostly good music when I turn on a mainstream country station.