Eric Church’s ‘Heart & Soul’ Trilogy Is a Study in Country-Rock Heartbreak
"Bright Side Girl" isn't likely to steal press around Eric Church's new Heart & Soul album, but in many ways, it's the signature song from the new triple album.
The tender acoustic ballad from Soul isn't the best song of the 24, nor is it the most original. Church and his songwriting team are rarely straightforward on this dynamic collection of love, love lost and freedom songs — but here, the entire vocal arrangement works to contrast his more angsty, melancholy lashings with the refreshing buoyancy he sprinkles throughout the trilogy.
A Church-ian song structure allows a personal idea to build into a dark, electric storm at the bridge. Nine heavy guitar chords interrupt the peace and quiet as he sings, "Yeah, my shelter from the storm / That keeps me safe and warm / A refuge from the waves and the wind / And even when the fog rolls back in."
This Jeff Hyde, Scotty Emerick and Clint Daniels co-write will be slow to grow on Church's fanbase, which could be said of several tracks on Heart & Soul. Patience is required, because with so much new material and repeated themes scattered, it's difficult to find a thread.
Distinguishing the three albums from one another takes time — Heart has less B3 Hammond organ and Soul has more Casey Beathard, but that's about it. That's not a criticism, but a reminder that the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year didn't isn't releasing one three-album project. He's truly releasing three albums, just days apart.
Broken Heart would be a more appropriate title for the first of Church's three new albums, even as it offers a few moments of pristine hope. A distinct anxiety ties the nine songs together, with tracks like "Stick That in Your Country Song" and "Never Break Heart" bringing relief.
"Russian Roulette," "Crazyland" and "Bunch of Nothing" are the lyrical core of Heart, each bringing different takes on heartbreak and the trauma associated. Add the piano and acoustic guitar theater of "Heart of the Night" for something of an emotional prequel — you can palpably feel Church teetering on an edge here, longing for a freedom his father never knew, but afraid of the isolation that comes with it.
"Yeah, my true north is anywhere I can leave it all behind / Let’s point this thing west into the chest of the still beating heart of the night," he hollers, pleading with someone to join him.
Spotlight songs on Heart include "Heart on Fire" (a wide-open, Mellencamp-inspired road anthem that screams freedom), the tender and easy-to-love "Never Break Heart" and his snarling lead single, "Stick That in Your Country Song." "Crazyland" is a masterful lyric that finds Church, Luke Laird and Michael Heeney literally personifying the many sides of heartbreak, but it's lost ahead of "Bunch of Nothing," a romping blues-rock cut that repeats this theme one too many times.
Church spends quite a bit of time running early on (the first five songs feature a car, truck or beaten dashboard), and that brands the entire disc, perhaps even cleaving it from the remaining two-thirds. An astute fan may notice he tips a cap to his hit song "Springsteen" during "Russian Roulette."
“I need a melody without a memory,” he sings toward the end. A decade ago, he leaned into the that same concept with, "Funny how a melody sounds like a memory."
The fan club exclusive & album is a six-song EP with repeating themes. A trio of dynamic broken hearts club cuts ("Do Side," "Kiss Her Goodbye," "Mad Man") anchor a mellow, mostly acoustic-driven project. Two more grateful love songs make bookends. Only "Through My Ray-Bans" — a standout song on this trilogy, and really, Church's entire catalog — break out thematically.
The same hopeful tone found found on this song is repeated on "Doing Life With Me" (and in spots across Heart and Soul), but the & album opener finds him reflecting on what he sees from the stage each night. His concerts are a place for unity and harmony, he insists with Church-like urgency. It's a place where steeled social and political opinions get left at the arena metal detectors. "Through My Ray-Bans" is beyond good — it's necessary.
"Do Side" interrupts what would be a stripped-down project, and it's the most difficult song of the six to embrace. A garble of used Eric Church concepts collide around a deeply layered lyric. Casey Beathard helped Church write four of the six songs including this one, but he also helped write the very memorable and accessible "Kiss Her Goodbye," a sure keeper if one were to trim the trilogy down to a dozen favorites from the trilogy.
The Soul album exemplifies why this is Church's best and most daring vocal album to date. His falsetto on "Break It Kind of Guy" and bassy crooning from "Where I Wanna Be" ("like Kansas Cit-ay") are two examples. If there's a job to get done, the singer leans hard into it until it's done right on Heart & Soul.
"Break It Kind of Guy" may be the only heartbreaker on this funky album, but it's so much fun you probably won't mind the pain. Elsewhere it's a mix of playful romance ("Look Good and You Know It," "Jenny") and original storytelling ("Lynyrd Skynyrd Jones" is a the meaningful album closer). "Rock & Roll Found Me" reinvents "Mistress Named Music" in a very satisfying way.
"No my rebel never run, and my damn gave one / I was just a boulder on a shoulder in a cul-de-sac dead-end street / And rock and roll found me," Church sings to open Soul. Previously fans could skip to the end to hear gems, but on each of these three albums, the best songs are right up front. Every fan will have a skip track, sure, but it's difficult to argue any two songs get in the way of one another.
Of the three, this song collection stands up best when separated from the others. His Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute comes on a little strong, but it's fun to count the songs he name-checks, and the twist at the very end works, even if it doesn't "work" on the classic rock band's storytelling timeline (Spoiler alert: Curtis Loew dies at the end of his namesake ballad).
Heart (break) lightens his Soul by the end of this opus.
If Eric Church's Heart & Soul Were One Album, This Should Be the Tracklist:
"Heart on Fire"
"Stick That in Your Country Song"
"Never Break Heart"
"Bunch of Nothing"
"Through My Ray-Bans"
"Doing Life With Me"
"Kiss Her Goodbye"
"Rock & Roll Found Me"
"Break It Kind of Guy"
"Hell of a View"
"Where I Wanna Be"
"Lynyrd Skynyrd Jones"