New Church Album Stands Outside Mainstream Country

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As mainstream country turns to pop more and more for inspiration, resident outlaw Eric Church seeks to distance himself from his contemporaries with his fourth studio LP The Outsiders.

Ever since his scorching performance of the album’s title track at the Country Music Awards back in November, critics and country fans have had their eyes on the February release of The Outsiders. Whereas Church’s beer- and truck-loving peers have toed a crossover between country and pop sound, The Outsiders is part old-school rock album, part country music manifesto, and it’s Church who pulls it all together for a mostly smooth, occasionally bumpy ride. Church doesn’t pack any punches. He never has, and rather uses his latest album to reflect upon fatherhood, his conflict with old pal Jack Daniels, and the role of Nashville in country music. The Outsiders is Church growing up-at the age of 36, no less-and it shows in both his stormy arrangements and honest songwriting.

“The Outsiders” kicks off the 12-track album with a blaze of righteous fire. The whole album isn’t quite Church seething behind a wave of guitar riffs growling, “We’re the junkyard dogs / We’re the alley cats,” but it’s the title track that gives the album its edge and sets it apart from its contemporaries.

The second track, “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young,” is more old-school Church-soft, eclectic instrumentals with honest lyrics reflecting on his rebel, whiskey-shooting days. It’s Church’s voice-his twang and lyrics-that make The Outsiders a country album. It’s the mix of hell-raising rock tracks (“The Outsiders”) and the stripped down, simpler ones (“A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young”), which make the album an accomplishment. It’s this combination of calling out his contemporaries while also looking at himself that makes Church more compelling than his peers.

Most of the tracks sound distinctive enough. Church has another headbanger akin to “The Outsiders” with “That’s Damn Rock and Roll” later in the album. Most of it, though, lies somewhere in between riled rock and roll and the quieter, sentimental stuff. “Roller Coaster Ride” and “Talladega” are two of those tracks that lie in the middle. They’re catchy, but not mind-numbing Florida Georgia Line “Cruise” catchy. Like a lot of country tunes, “Roller Coaster Ride” is about a girl-not her jeans, but about getting over her. It’s catchy in the way it produces an unshakable urge to stomp one’s boot through its entire four-and-a-half-minute runtime. “Talladega” is catchy in Church’s winding lyrics reminiscent of summer at the racetracks. It trades boot-stomping for chorus-belting.

Church could have crafted an album of summer songs like “Roller Coaster Ride” and “Talladega.” It would have sold like Chief-his 2011 platinum effort-and he’d likely move from there to headlining stadium tours. The Outsiderswill still sell, and Church will headline a tour across America this summer, but Church takes a different track in the last third of the album. His eight-minute manifesto on Nashville “Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess of Darkness)” plays on the Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” calling Nashville “the Devil’s bride.” This seems hypocritical coming from a star who resides in Nashville and made for himself a name in the city. Later in the lengthy track, though, Church pleads, “angel, angel let this Devil out of me.” It’s a bold declaration, one Church doesn’t shy away from, although its placement right before his second single off the album, “Give Me Back My Hometown,” takes the listener out of the flow. It comes off  as indulgent-not contrived, but carried away. Church is heavy handed. His brashness is one of his endearing qualities, but the album would have been better off without an eight-minute track.

Despite the late hiccup and a couple of lulls along the way,The Outsiders is a firm step in a new direction for country music. And in many ways it’s a step back-back to Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, because that’s where country music’s been most compelling: on the outside, looking in.

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Ryan Dowd was the Arts & Review Editor. He's amassed 16,323 (at last count) unread emails. He'll work on it tomorrow. Follow him on Twitter @RPD_1993.