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Review: Eric Church Retreats From the Dark Side on ‘Mr. Misunderstood’

7
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: November 3, 2015
Label: EMI Nashville

When Eric Church released The Outsiders last year, country music was his for the taking. That album, which has sold over a million copies and resulted in four top-ten singles, was an uncompromising tour de force, merging prog, metal, soul, and hard-rock with Church’s soft side and knack for country hits. It was one of the most adventurous big-tent country LPs of the past decade.

But the ten songs that make up the surprise new Mr. Misunderstood are a step back from the arena-scaled grandeur Church has been trading in for the past several years. Many of the songs feel like scaled-down counterparts to some of the best tracks on The Outsiders: “Round Here Buzz,” which finds Church once again roaming around his high school’s bleachers, is “Give Me Back My Hometown” without the U2 reverb and Coldplay singalong potential. And lead single “Mr. Misunderstood” which namechecks Ray Wylie Hubbard and somehow includes the line “Jeff Tweedy is one bad mother”  is basically “The Outsiders” minus the guitar-shredding pyrotechnics.

With Church still riding the success of his most recent Outsiders single, “Like a Wrecking Ball,” it came as some surprise when he joined in on the album release stunt du jour and dropped his latest album, Mr. Misunderstood, out of nowhere. Much of the record, in fact, picks up where “Wrecking Ball” leaves off. Like several of his 2015 country peers, Church has fallen hard for the soul ballad, and he deploys it to great effect as he sings the praises of toddlers (“Three Year Old”) and drinks away a breakup (“Mixed Drinks About Feelings”). The latter, a sultry duet with blues maven Susan Tedeschi, is a savvy move for a mainstream country star who has been steadily courting what’s left of the rock mainstream for the past few years.

Indeed, crossing over as a rock star is to Church what Top 40 pop acceptance is to Taylor Swift, and Mr. Misunderstood — with its Elvis Costello shoutouts, multiple odes to vinyl crate digging, and pared-down, most roots-leaning arrangements Church has ever approached — could very well be the album that fully endears him to the “I don’t normally like country but…” crowd; now, he might accomplish more than simply starring in thinkpieces they read.

Is that a good thing? It’s hard not to miss the wonderful tension between left-of-center experimentation and sensitive radio gold that defined The Outsiders. The success of that record made it clear that country music is willing to follow Church just about wherever he goes. A small shame, then, that he chose what might have been the safest move: making what is sure to become the most agreeable, least controversial record of his career.