EMI Records Nashville (2014)

Despite his previous album Chief going Platinum and scoring top hits like “Springsteen” and “Drink In My Hand,” it seems as though Eric Church has continued to skirt the edges of country superstardom, fighting to be seen past the huge shadows cast by Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Florida Georgia Line. With his new release The Outsiders, however, Church is prepared to blast right through those shadows to carve out his own piece of the limelight—and ironically, he does it by kicking the boundaries of country music square in the teeth.

Take the title track for example, which has already generated plenty of conversations as the album’s lead single. “The Outsiders” actually starts out sounding (almost regrettably) very like a recent Blake Shelton hit, with Church’s low-tone rap sounding so much like the opening to “Boys ‘Round Here” that people are likely to confuse the two.  But that’s where the similarity ends—from there, the song bursts into a surprisingly heavy-drum, guitar-driven anthem that sounds like a goth-metal-country hybrid.  And remarkably, it works—almost as if Church is making the statement: “Wanna compare me to those other ‘boys ‘round here?’ Well, get a load of THIS.”

Then there’s the second single, “Give Me Back My Hometown,” released just last month. This one doesn’t even sound like it’s on the same record, pushing the boundaries of country once again, only toward pop this time. Again, somehow, it works, and it’s likely to strike a nerve with both country and crossover fans.

That’s not to say Eric Church has gone the way of other crossover country artists (like Taylor Swift, who is now more pop than country). There are several moments on The Outsiders that are stellar examples of modern country—for example, the mid-tempo “Talladega,” the gritty “Broke Record” and the touching ballads “Dark Side” and “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young.” These tunes showcase strong songwriting from Church and his collaborators, as well as proving that this is a guy who hasn’t forgotten his roots.

But then there are other times when the only thing that reminds us we’re listening to a country artist is the presence of his drawl in the vocals. Beyond the two genre-bending singles mentioned earlier, “That’s Damn Rock & Roll” makes no secret of its classic rock leanings, even as Church decries the accompanying lifestyle in the lyrics.  And closing track, “The Joint,” draws us in with its eerie, low-sung melody, but stylewise, I don’t even know where to put this. It’s just kind of there, in its own genre we might call “WTF.”

And yet, once again, for the most part—it works.  I’m an old-school guy, and I actually really like this record.  That’s saying something.

That’s not to say this is a flawless album; in fact, there are two things that don’t really convince me as a fan.  First, there’s the track “Like a Wrecking Ball.” never mind that the title is unfortunately similar to a recent Miley Cyrus song.  This isn’t a bad song, but it suffers from a poor production choice, with so much slapback added to Church’s vocals that the song sounds like it belongs on a different record entirely.

Then there’s the anti-establishment vibe that prevails throughout the record—from Church’s overt “tell the establishment to go to hell” line on “That’s Damn Rock & Roll” to the three-minute verbal rant against Nashville opening the epic-length “Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess of Darkness).” The irony here is, anti-establishment is “in,” and the “establishment” knows it. Eric Church is playing to popular opinion by bashing the establishment, even while relying on the establishment to get his message across.  It may seem like he’s biting the hand that feeds him, but the hand is going to allow itself to get bit for one reason—this is going to sell records. Not a lot of folks will catch this inconsistency, but it will likely offend some who have truly been burned by the establishment.   Eric Church obviously wants to be seen as an outsider, but frankly, I don’t believe it.  It doesn’t offend me personally as a fan, but it’s worth pointing out.

That being said, this album’s strong points far outweigh its flaws.  I have to say that Eric Church has quite likely put out a record that will stand as a milestone in his career. We’ll find out pretty soon whether I’m right, but I think country music history will remember The Outsiders as the record that put Eric Church on the superstar map and gave Shelton/Bryan/FLG a run for their money. At any rate, it’s an early contender for best country album of the year.

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