Eric Church's Mr. Misunderstood opens with a manifesto -- albeit a quieter-than-usual one. "Ain't Killed Me Yet" this isn't, and it sure as hell ain't "The Outsiders," either. But "Mr. Misunderstood" is still Chief, writing from the misfit perspective that earned him fans and fame: He may have been 38 years old and a father of two young boys, but he was still a rebel.

As a whole, Mr. Misunderstood is an older, wiser, slightly tempered and (just a little bit) more-refined Church holdin' his own (pun intended). He'd gone from drinking too many beers on a Friday night to learning lessons from his 3-year-old. And he needed only 38 minutes and 41 seconds -- his shortest album to date -- to make his point.

'Mr. Misunderstood' is an older, wiser, slightly tempered and (just a little bit) more-refined Church.

He also needed less than three months to make the record. On Nov. 4, 2015, members of Church's fan club, the Church Choir, received digital downloads and physical copies of Mr. Misunderstood, completely unannounced. That night, at the 2015 CMA Awards, Church officially debuted the album's title track; backstage, he explained that he'd written 18 songs in 20 days, had the final 10 tracks recorded 20 days after that and, 30 days after that, released the record -- after buying a record-pressing plant in Europe to get the album made ASAP and not letting his label in on his plans until absolutely necessary. If Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake hadn't shown up, it'd have been the biggest story of the night.

In between its title track and the closing song "Three Year Old," Mr. Misunderstood contains reflections on chasing dreams ("Mistress Named Music"), socially conscious musings ("Kill a Word") and clever wordplay ("Record Year"). In addition to the wail of his exceptional backup singer Joanna Cotten on "Chattanooga Lucy," listeners will find blues powerhouse Susan Tedeschi on "Mixed Drinks About Feelings" and the brilliant Rhiannon Giddens and Andrea Davidson on "Kill a Word." Church weaves a murder story into one song ("Knives of New Orleans"), but one track later, he's lamenting the one that got away ("Round Here Buzz"). It's varied, but taken as a whole, it works because of Church's writing, Jay Joyce's production and the way the country star commits to it all.

Eric Church Mr Misunderstood album cover
EMI Records Nashville

Sinners Like Me and Carolina built the foundation for Church's public personality, and Chief and The Outsiders made him a superstar, but Mr. Misunderstood proves Church can still surprise, both literally, with an out-of-the-blue album delivery, and musically, while embracing that arena headliner-level superstardom. If his single "Desperate Man" is any indication, it may have also sonically (and with its Ray Wylie Hubbard name-check) set the stage for the next chapter of his career.

All five of Church's previously released studio albums are strong front to back, and based on his trajectory so far, the best is yet to come. Pose this question again in a few months, and then a few months after that, and you may get a different answer, and then another different one -- a testament to the strength of Church's catalog. But for now, Mr. Misunderstood gets our vote.

The Boot and Taste of Country’s collaborative Point / Counterpoint series features staff members from the two sites debating topics of interest within country music once per month. Check back on Aug. 21 for another installment.

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