Eric Church has all the swagger and sex appeal of his country contemporaries, cliche-spewing frat faves such as Kenny Chesney and Luke Bryan. The difference, however, is that the intense Tar Heel has 10 times the songwriting smarts, plus a confidence to step out of the precious limelight, not to mention his creative comfort zone, and take the time needed to write a genre-busting gem like new LP The Outsiders.
A la Miranda Lambert and recent Grammy winner Kacey Musgraves, the 36-year-old dude in dark shades and curled trucker's cap possesses that rare skill to simultaneously thrive in keep-it-safe Nashville but also follow his own quirky rules. He resists the urge to sing to spring breakers, instead performing for a cultish fanbase that eats up such hybrids as 2012's Boss-referencing smash Springsteen from breakout album Chief.
And the rabblerouser Church is so honest about his varied tastes, he can't resist slipping shards of AC/DC into sneering new cut That's Damn Rock & Roll, much like when he and his crew churned out blasts of Metallica when opening for, and out-performing, Chesney last spring at Raymond James Stadium.
Church is an outlaw for sure, no more so than on the 12-track The Outsiders. A husband and father with no interest in a playboy life, the twang-strong star took a long ride to fame, slugging it out in honky-tonks and biker bars. That dues-paying shows, his ferocious band versed in all manner of survival. Playful breakup cut Cold One ("Did she have to leave me / One beer short of a twelve pack?") features a soft acoustic start, a hip-hop midsection AND a Hee Haw finale. If you've seen one of Church's live gigs, you just know Cold One will be a monster.
Same goes for the sprawling title cut, which opens the album with a decidedly hair-metal rah-rah-ness and a loner's creed that proves perfect antidote to pop country's sorority-party vibe ("They're the in-crowd, we're the other ones / It's a different kind of cloth that we're cut from"). And then there's the eight-minute-plus prog-country beast Devil, Devil ("Got nine things going wrong right now / And her leaving makes a dime"), with its overwrought spoken-word intro that pays homage to the beloved bad boys (Willie, Johnny, Kris) who preceded him.
Church thrives on switching gears, and even his slight miscues have the ability to charm. The midtempo Roller Coaster Ride, for which he delivers a roughneck falsetto, is a lark straight out of the Seals & Crofts '70s. Much like earlier Hank J.-inspired hit Drink in My Hand, chummy-strummy remember-when Talladega is the kind of bromantic tailgate cut he can write in his sound sleep.
For all his rambunctious ways, though, Church excels at the somber stuff, which is never as simple as she's-gone sentiment; the nuances come in how this complex writer perceives the pain. On a career highlight called A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young, a quiet autobiographical cut even his blue-collar hero from New Jersey would admire, Church hushes: "In the mirror, I saw my surprise / Who knew gray hairs liked to hide / On a head that didn't think he'd live past 30."
Current single Give Me Back My Hometown, about a wife who can no longer handle her man's provincial life, is one of the smarter heartbreakers to come out of Music Row lately. Building to a resilient, arena-sized realization (he loves his giant fist-pumped choruses), the cut keenly details how our vision is impaired in the wake of a split, every sight and sound colored by memory, all that was sweet now soured.
The album closes with The Joint, which, in a wry twist, is not about what you think it's about. Instead, Church, with all the affected menace of Phil Collins on In the Air Tonight, slow-drawls about Mama taking inflammatory revenge on hard-drinkin' Pa and his roadhouse. Church already did a pot song years ago, Smoke a Little Smoke. Giving you something new and unexpected: That's how Church scores his high.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter and Instagram.
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