TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Eric Church is one of the most popular stars in country music. His new album, "Desperate Man," debuted at the top of Billboard's Country charts, but this new album is a departure from the hits he had before, perhaps as a result of a couple of life-changing experiences. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DROWNING MAN")
ERIC CHURCH: (Singing) Don't tell me about no beach. Don't want to hear about your mountain, how the good life is a peach. You drink your sunsets from a fountain. No, I don't want to think about it. Save your breath. I don't want to hear about it. I just want to get right down...
KEN TUCKER: Eric Church is a singer-songwriter with a rock 'n' roll sensibility, which means, in the 21st century, he's a country artist because that's where his kind of guitar-based confessionalism can thrive. On one of his new songs, he says he searches for things in life that will give him a solid foundation.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOLID")
CHURCH: (Singing) And I don't own nothing new. I might look like a mess to you. But I'm solid. This old thing I drive around got some rust, makes some funny sounds. But it's paid for and solid. You may think I'm way too chill. But I get it done, got my daddy's will. And I'll always, I'll always keep a promise. In a great big world spinning around, people walking around on shaky ground, my foundation's solid. Like a vessel getting tossed on the big, blue sea trying to rock me off my feet, it's you that keeps me solid.
TUCKER: Recently, Church's world became less solid. Last October, Church performed at the Las Vegas country music festival that became the site of the worst mass shooting in American history. In response, he wrote a song of survivor guilt called "Why Not Me" that he did not include on this new album, perhaps to avoid the appearance of somehow profiting from tragedy.
A few months before the Vegas shooting, Church had undergone emergency surgery for a near-fatal blood clot. This last fact was revealed in a Rolling Stone interview earlier this year in which, among many other things, Church asserted a very mild suggestion that some sort of gun control legislation might be useful. And he was immediately hit with a strong social media backlash. So all in all, it's a difficult - or at least complicated - time to be Eric Church. That may not be exactly what his new song "Desperate Man" is about, but it might just as well be.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESPERATE MAN")
CHURCH: (Singing) I've seen the Joshua tree, got down on my knees, threw the Virgin Mother a prayer. I've walked glass barefooted, strolled across the devil's hot coal. I've tried everything, I swear. Oh, but hey - what can I say? I'm a desperate man. I said hey, what can I say? I'm just a desperate man.
TUCKER: Church has been making albums since 2006. As he became more popular, his recordings became more ambitious, more elaborately produced and more grand. The events of the past year inevitably deflated him somewhat, driven him deeper inside himself. And it shows in his new music. There's a stripped-down quality to many of these songs. Sometimes it's a matter of returning to the basics of country music in both sound and subject matter. One of the best songs Church has ever written and recorded is this one about the simple pleasures of music and a strong drink on this tune called "Jukebox And A Bar."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUKEBOX AND A BAR")
CHURCH: (Singing) They can make cars drive themselves and prove time travel ain't crazy as hell. They've even got a pill to make a soft package hard. But as far as we came, when it comes to love and to blame and the breaking of a lover's heart, I think we're sorely lacking methods. So I'm going with old time tested, a jukebox and a bar. One pushes me up the mountain, and one rolls me down the hill while I sit in a phosphorescent dark. So you can keep your fancy potions and your incandescent notions. As for me and my barely beating heart, there's no better prescription for my broken disposition than a jukebox and a bar.
TUCKER: Eric Church is no stranger to dolorous self-regard. This is, after all, the guy whose last album was called "Mr. Misunderstood." It's a tricky thing to be an essentially serious fellow in the essentially frivolous genre of big-time country music in 2018, which makes Church's achievement on "Desperate Man" all the more impressive. He's a man who's been shaken - haunted is the word he's used in recent interviews - but who's also resilient enough to remember that part of his job is to provide energy and entertainment as well.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Eric Church's new album, "Desperate Man." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed like this week's interview with Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the creator of the Netflix animated satirical series "BoJack Horseman," check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "THE RAMBLE")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "THE RAMBLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.