Review Summary: This is what country music should sound like...
Eric Church is known for being a rebel. In a way, he is repsonisble for the rise of Taylor Swift. Because of his antics (mainly, playing beyond his time slot), he was kicked off Rascal Flatt's tour and replaced by Ms. Swift. Afterwords, Church was all but banished from country music, forced to build his fanbase by appealing to rock fans in ***hole clubs & catching the attention of country music fans who had grown disillusioned with the genre's move towards pop-inflected sounds and increasing emphasis on singles instead of albums. Along the way, Mr. Church cultivated an "outlaw" image combined with a troubadour style, with his signature hat/sunglasses look and songs that touched on marijuana use (Smoke a Little Smoke & I'm Gettin' Stoned) whiskey-drinking (Drink In My Hand, Hungover & Hard-Up) as well as non-traditional country topics like urban lifestyles (Homeboy). He even pays homage to the ultimate troubadour in a pop-rock ballad (Springsteen).
After his last album, Chief, debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts without a single #1 single to his credit, Eric Church has had a lot of pressure and expectations placed upon him. As country-music analysts labeled him the "savior" of country music, Eric instead seemed to turn away from country music. He focused on experimenting sonically as he holed up in his North Carolina estate, writing his next album.
All of this has led up to his fourth album, The Outsiders. And yes, after looking at the cover, I truly believe that the title is a reference to the classic 80's Francis Ford Coppola drama of the same name. The title itself also seems to fully establish Eric Church as country music's rebel. The album-opening title track (which also served as the first single), hits like a shock to the system, with huge metal-influenced guitars and an instrumental jam at the end that is unlike anything heard on country radio in the past decade. From there, the sonic variety show continues, from swampy rocker "Cold One", the disco-country of "Roller Coaster Ride", funk and soul-country (Broke Record, Like a Wrecking Ball), to the prog(") country "Devil, Devil" and etc. Not only is The Outsiders the most experimental album in Eric Church's catalog, it's also his best.
Now, this album is not perfect by any means. "That's Damn Rock & Roll" features a female back-up singer who actually completely overwhelms Eric's vocal. "Devil, Devil" features a spoken-word intro entitled "Princess of Darkness" that takes Nashville to task, but also goes on for far too long at almost four minutes. "Talladega" is a boring track that sounds more suited for a pop-country singer like Luke Bryan than a country-rock singer like Eric Church. There's also Eric's weird obsession with rapping (the title track, That's Damn Rock & Roll). The rapping feels forced, as if the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mentality that this album was written with was allowed to fester for a little too long. But when Eric Church gets it right on The Outsiders, he does big-time.
"Give Me Back My Hometown" is like a country version of "Springsteen" that is very pleasant and"The Joint" is a dark track that almost feels industrial in nature, with a horn section and a growling vocal. Both also defy expectations. Instead of being a Southern racial statement, "Give Me Back My Hometown" is instead about a heartbroken man who is haunted by memories of his lost love. Meanwhile, "The Joint" is not another marijuana track but is actually a tale of arson and revenge. In an era where country radio is dominated by men singing about bonfires, trucks, and etc., The Outsiders feels like a breath of fresh air lyrically.
The title track is an anthem of individual independence, and the somber "A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young" tackles mortality in a bare-bones way. "Cold One" turns the typical break-up song on it's head as Eric laments about a girl who "left him one short of a twelve pack." "Like a Wrecking Ball" oozes seductive sex as Eric throws out lines about "rocking some sheetrock" and knocking "pictures off the wall" while making love to his wife. There are real no party songs on this album, which will come as a relief to fans of "real" country music.
Eric Church revels in both being a rebel and delivering the unexpected, and on The Outsiders he accomplishs both. The Outsiders moves him further from the pop heart of country music and also shows that even a country singer can experiment. It is a bold artistic statement from an artist who enjoys making them. If there is one country album you should listen to in 2014, The Outsiders is it.