"I think genres are dead," country star Eric Church recently said in an interview on CMT. "There's good music. There's bad music. And I think the cool thing about Nashville is it is at the epicenter of that kind of thinking."
That kind of thinking certainly shaped Church's fourth album, The Outsiders. It bristles and growls with honky-tonk stomp and swagger. But it also sounds like Church must've been bingeing on Black Sabbath, Mountain and ZZ Top while recording it. And just when you start to recover from being pummeled by Church's brand of chicken-fried country-metal, oddly out-of-place synthesizer melodies and R&B influences turn up too.
As far as the album's lyrics are concerned, though, it's a much more conventional country affair—for better and worse.
"A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young" describes a rebel who seems destined for an early grave until he meets a woman who pushes him toward redemption: "Just thought by now I'd be pushing up daisies/But I'll gladly stick around if we're together/So, baby, when you bow your head tonight/Could you tell the Lord I've changed my mind?/And with you, I'd like to live forever." Likewise, a reformed wild man on "Dark Side" says he's "slowed down on the whiskey" to shield his wife and son from the violent consequences of his drunkenness.
"That's D‑‑n Rock & Roll" deserves at least this much credit: It rejects parts of the out-of-control lifestyle indulged by some rock stars. Church sings, "It ain't a needle in a vein, it ain't backstage sex/It ain't lines of cocaine on a private jet/It ain't havin' a posse full of hangers-on following you around/It ain't long hair, tattoos, playin' too loud, naw/It' ain't a middle finger on a T-shirt that the establishment's trying to sell."
Arguably the most interesting song on the album, though, is "Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess of Darkness)" which likens Nashville to a demonic entity seeking to destroy the souls of naive would-be stars who don't understand how ruthless the town is. In a spoken-word intro, Church whispers, "This town, she is a temptress, a siren with gold eyes/She'll cut you with her kindness/She will lead you with her lies/She's been called a glistening devil/She's good at keeping score/If you make it she's your savior, if you don't she's a whore/The roads to and from her heart are littered with grave souls."
One could make the argument that the opening lines of "The Outsiders" borrows Lorde-esque language to affirm those who aren't popular or cool: "They're the in-crowd, we're the other ones/It's a different kind of cloth that we're cut from." Unfortunately …
… different is mostly described in angry, rebellious and suggestive terms as Church defines his vision of being that outsider: "Our women get hot and our leather gets stained/When we saddle up and ride 'em in the pouring rain/We're the junkyard dogs, we're the alley cats/Keep the wind at our front and the h‑‑‑ at our backs/ … So fire 'em up and get a little higher." Similarly, "That's D‑‑n Rock & Roll" defines being a real rocker as defying the powers that be with, "It's a guy with the balls tellin' the establishment to go to h‑‑‑." Other markers of authenticity include anarchic vandalism and living life only on your own terms.
On "Cold One," Church laments a woman who grabbed an icy beer as she walked out on him ("That was a cold one/I never will get back/If she had to leave/Did she have to leave me/One short of a 12 pack?"). "Broke Record" talks of the drug-like charms of a woman's body: "Your lips, your hips/When you touch 'em to mine/Each and every time I'm hypnotized/ … Girl, your love's a drug, I can't quit it." Similarly saucy, "Like a Wrecking Ball" is the Miley Cyrus-evoking simile Church employs to describe the foundation-breaking sex he's looking forward to having with a lover he hasn't seen in a while ("Been too many nights since it's felt us make love/I wanna rock some sheetrock/Knock some pictures off the wall/Love you, baby, like a wrecking ball").
"Talladega" talks about high school friends sippin' whiskey. "The Joint" actually isn't about marijuana. Instead, it tells the story of a fed-up wife secretly burning down the tavern where her husband spends too much time, a secret that only the couple's son knows about ("I had my suspicions till one night when we said grace/Dad said, 'Forgive us our transgressions,' that smile lit up on Momma's face"). And though Church's heart might be in the right place, his threats to take justice into his own hands if anyone ever harmed his son take things a violent step too far on "Dark Side" ("Dealin' drugs and makin' noise/You can kill each other all you want/But if you touch my little boy/You beggin' for this bullet/Will be the last thing that you say/Before I let my dark side come out to play").
"Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess of Darkness)" tears a page out of Charlie Daniel's "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" playbook as a man unwisely talks of going head-to-head with Satan ("I'm mad as h‑‑‑, and drunk, and, well/Tonight, I guess we'll see/If devil, devil you're bad enough to lock horns with me"). Elsewhere, the song crudely personifies Nashville as a promiscuous, unfeeling lover, referencing orgasms and "stamina" and then, "To be a star in this lady's town, you can f‑‑‑ or you can fight." "H‑‑‑" and "d‑‑n" also turn up regularly.
For all its oddly compelling sonic exploration, in the end Eric Church's The Outsiders sounds very much like something a country insider would make. He tips his hat to obligatory genre motifs like the woman with a heart of gold who tames her wild man, as well as the bedrock importance of family.
And then … all that other backwoods stuff: teens downing whiskey in a dilapidated RV, concrete-shattering sexploits and, of course, being an rebel without a cause. His anthem yell? "It's doin' what you want 'stead of doin' what you're told. …We're the ones that they told you to run from."