Building off the success of his 2009 sophomore album Carolina, and more specifically the record’s country/rock/psychedelic Top 20 hit “Smoke A Little Smoke,” Eric Church returns with his most ambitious project to date. Chief is a complex, multi-layered work in both songwriting and production that marks its own path with an original hard country sound, independent spirit and Eric’s voice leading the way.
The swampy guitar intro of “Creepin’,” laying amidst a sonic bed that sounds as if it’s filled with rattlesnakes, ominously opens the album. Over growling guitars that continue to get meaner through the first verse, Eric sings, I can feel the lonely, I can hear the crazy to describe his desperate need for a dangerous lover. The song erupts from the restraint of its title into a sprint at the chorus with distortion and banging drums as Eric defiantly sings out, Head to the future, run from the past/ Hide from the mirror, live in a glass in a struggle with her temptations. This is how the album opens. It’s ambitious. It’s artistic. It’s a sonic challenge to the listener to keep up.
Reuniting with genre-knows-no-bounds producer Jay Joyce (Emmylou Harris, Nichole Nordeman, Cage the Elephant) for the third time, Eric creates sophisticated musical beds to match his lyrical themes. Co-writing 10 of the album’s 11 songs, including the album’s first single “Homeboy,” Eric’s approach and delivery is rooted in outlaw country tradition as he incorporates aspects of different genres with country melodies. “Homeboy” infuses hip hop beats (including a drum roll and handclap loop) with metal guitar while he sings, Homeboy you’re gonna wish one day/ You were sittin’ on the gate of a truck by the lake/ With your high school flame on one side/ Ice cold beer on the other, in a brother’s plea to another to drop the criminal lifestyle and Come on home, boy. The Southern Gospel-flavored “Country Music Jesus” calls for the second coming of country legends while alluding to greats such as Charlie Daniels with lines like needing Some long-haired hippie prophet preaching from the book of Johnny Cash. After heavy electric guitars stomp through the verse, the song goes double-time in a banjo-laced chorus that brings on the revival.
Eric takes opportunities to slow things down a bit on songs like the R&B-influenced “Hungover & Hard Up.” His rich southern drawl shows off its agility moving through clever melodies with lines like, It keeps haunting me and ain’t no maybe about it/ The hurt keeps calling me, come on out we’ve got you surrounded/ Yeah the bottle in my hand is loaded/ And I ain’t afraid to use it tonight. On the ballad “Like Jesus Does,” sad pedal steel opens the acoustic-based song before he sings, She knows the man I ain’t/ She forgives me when I can’t/ And the devil man no he don’t stand a chance/ ’Cause she loves me like Jesus does through an atmospheric and ringing chorus.
Chief, named for both Eric and his grandfather’s nicknames, takes some serious chances throughout. Whether it’s the atmospheric undertones of the hard-hitting “I’m Getting Stoned” or the adventurous infusion of other genres like the indie-rock ringing guitars of “Springsteen,” this album is a fresh and exhilarating ride down the path less traveled.