In “Jukebox and a Bar” — a gorgeously beat-up vintage-style soul tune from his new album, “Desperate Man” — Eric Church runs down a partial list of the solutions humankind has devised to solve its problems.
And given the year or so this country star has had, you can understand why he’s got trouble on his mind: In June 2017, Church underwent emergency surgery to address a blood clot that he told Rolling Stone almost killed him. A few months later, he was on the bill at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas where 58 people were shot to death. Then, this past summer, his younger brother died.
But if we’ve figured out how to avoid getting lost and how to correct erectile dysfunction, as he sings in “Jukebox and a Bar,” we’ve had considerably less luck mending the type of heartache Church has been grappling with.
For that, he concludes, there’s still nothing more effective than — well, you can figure it out.
Church’s follow-up to 2015’s “Mr. Misunderstood” (named that year’s best album by the Country Music Assn. Awards), “Desperate Man” plays like the proof of his concept: It’s a warm, appealingly ragged collection suffused with wisdom and reassurance.
Pour yourself a stiff one and spin a tune like the slow-grooving “Solid” — in which he tells us that rust and funny sounds only make his truck run better — and you’ll know just what he means.
Which isn’t to say that “Desperate Man” steers clear of tough topics or that Church, who’s long prided himself as one of Nashville’s most forthright truth-tellers, has become some kind of motivational speaker.
The album opens with “The Snake,” an animal-kingdom allegory about our broken political system. Here, over an appropriately slithering acoustic-blues arrangement, Church depicts Democrats and Republicans as a rattlesnake and a copperhead, both flapping their forked tongues while “the whole world’s burning down.”
Ten songs later, “Drowning Man” closes the record with a bitter lament for what Church views as America’s forgotten working class: those who “put the smoke in a stack” and “the seed in the ground” but have increasingly little to show for it.
But for much of “Desperate Man,” Church dispenses the kind of time-tested succor for which people have been coming to country music for decades.
Sometimes he’s describing the power of music itself, as in “Jukebox and a Bar” and the strummy “Hippie Radio,” where he remembers being a kid watching his dad from the back seat: “He couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket / But he’d sing at the top of his lungs.”
Other times he’s waxing more philosophical about understanding the human condition, and if his lyrics can come close to feeling like platitudes, they always stop just short.
“Some of it you learn the hard way / Some of it you read on a page,” he sings in the rousing “Some of It.” “Some of it comes from heartbreak / Most of it comes with age.”
To deliver these messages of comfort, Church has dialed down the arena-rock intensity he’s cranked up for his past few records (and will no doubt crank up again on tour next year). “Higher Wire,” for instance, doesn’t even have much of a beat; it’s all organ, guitar reverb and gospel-fied backing vocals.
The song isn’t missing a thing.