On the night of the 2015 CMA Awards everybody expected the biggest news of the night to be Eric Church dropping his surprise new album Mr. Misunderstood. After all he’s one of the biggest artists in country music and it was one of the better-kept secret album releases in recent memory. But then of course Chris Stapleton had his superstar making performance and the rest is history. I will always be thrilled about that performance by Stapleton, but at the same time I will always be a little disappointed that Mr. Misunderstood didn’t get the recognition it truly deserved. To this point it’s arguably the best album from Church that spawned multiple hits and one of the most memorable albums from this era of largely forgettable music.
The album’s title track and lead single kicks this album off. It’s an appropriate opener, as it essentially lays out what this album is all about and that’s Eric Church and his love of music. Church sings about how he grew up as “Mr. Misunderstood,” the kid in the back of the class who didn’t fit in with his friends who “got their rocks off” on top 40 radio. Instead he was the kid who listened to his dad’s vinyl and the likes of Elvis Costello, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Jeff Tweedy (a really cool shout out to three talented artists who have clearly influenced him). It’s an acoustic driven track influenced by southern and heartland rock. There were many things I found relatable about this song and I think many other listeners feel the same when they hear it.
The gospel-influenced “Mistress Named Music” follows. Just like “Mr. Misunderstood,” Church sings of his love of music and how it’s been a part of his life ever since he was a kid listening to the organ player in church. The instrumentation on this song is really well done, perfectly meshing country, rock and gospel to create a compelling and interesting listen. The upbeat and acoustic-driven “Chattanooga Lucy” is the closet thing to a party song on this album, although I wouldn’t classify it as such. It is a very fun song to listen to and move your feet along with. There’s not a lot of depth on this song, but that’s not a problem considering most of this album has a lot of depth and takes on a more serious tone. So this is a nice breakup. It also appears to be a bit of a precursor to his follow-up album Desperate Man.
“Mixed Drinks About Feelings” is a heartbreak song penned solely by Church himself. The man in the song is trying to drink his sorrows away after his woman left him and it’s not helping that much. Church duets on the song with blues artist Susan Tedeschi and their voices go together greatly. Their voices and instrumentation create the perfect mood in the song. There are many great songs throughout this album. But one of the standouts amongst them is “Knives of New Orleans.” The song is about a criminal on the run trying to escape his sins and looking for his getaway key. He wrote the song with the brilliant Travis Meadows and Jeremy Spillman. It’s a true songwriting gem that exemplifies storytelling at it’s best.
One of the more under-looked songs on the album, “Round Here Buzz,” is next. It’s about a man sitting on the hood of his car drinking, as he thinks about the girl who just left him. He’s perfectly content to just sit there and take in everything around him, as his heart heals. Living in a small town is part of the theme of this song too and unlike in The Outsiders, Church avoids being cheesy or unimaginative and instead does a great job describing it in an authentic way.
One of my personal favorites on Mr. Misunderstood is “Kill A Word.” It’s about getting rid of negative words and really negativity in general, as Church says words are something that can’t be unheard or unsaid. The songwriting is really sharp, clever and catchy, while also avoiding the pitfall of overly pandering (hello “We Shall Be Free”). But really what takes this song to another level for me is the vocal performances delivered by Church and guest performers Andrea Davidson and singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens. I have an immense amount of respect for Church including her on such a powerful song and releasing it as a single, even if it unsurprisingly didn’t get embraced by radio.
“Holdin’ My Own” is Church’s ode to his family. Another one penned solely by himself, Church is proud of how he’s been able to survive the early years of his life and how’s he now able to hold his arms around his wife and two boys and do what he loves for a living. You can tell how close and sentimental this song is to Church and his heart shows more on this song than any other on the album.
While I love this entire album, the best song on Mr. Misunderstood is “Record Year.” It’s one of the best songs he’s ever released (which Church co-wrote with fellow fusion country artist Jeff Hyde). “Record Year” is about a man who has just broken up with his girlfriend and turns to his vinyl collection to heal his heart. While he plays these records he slowly heals and not only gets over his heartbreak, but also rediscovers himself and some great music along the way. More than anything it’s a song about finding your way in life when things are at your darkest. When I first wrote about this album, I said this had to be a single and it could be one of his biggest hits. I’m glad to be right, as this song went on to be a big #1 hit for Church.
Mr. Misunderstood comes to a close with “Three Year Old.” Church is once again inspired by his family, particularly his three-year-old son Boone, on this song. He sings about all of the lessons he has learned from him and how it puts into context how simple life is through the eyes of a child. It should also be mentioned his son nicknamed the guitar that Church wrote this album with, “Butter Bean.” So it goes back to where this album all began. This album started off with Church relating back to his younger days and ends with him as an adult watching his own child grow up before his very eyes.
Mr. Misunderstood is a timeless work of music that will be remembered fondly by fans for years to come for its amazing quality and ability to break through the molasses of cookie-cutter music that cluttered mainstream country music. This is all thanks to the growth and maturity shown by Church on this album, a milestone moment in a career that looks to last for several years to come. It’s easy to dub this album a Fusion Country Classic.
Album’s Top Highlights: Record Year, Knives of New Orleans, Kill A Word, Mr. Misunderstood, Mistress Named Music, Chattanooga Lucy
Producer: Jay Joyce
Songwriters: Eric Church, Casey Beathard, Jeff Hyde, Ryan Tyndell, Travis Meadows, Jeremy Spillman, Luke Dick, Monty Criswell