Music Reviews
1:41 pm
Mon February 10, 2014

Hangin' Tuff: Eric Church Takes A Chance On 'The Outsiders'

Eric Church is working on a level that few other country artists of his generation can touch. Now, one of the things I mean by that is that Church is willing to take big chances such as "The Outsiders," the title track from his fourth album, and clearly a manifesto he's proud of. The composition is a big, overblown mess of a song — a country-rock-rap-metal explosion, with lyrics that brag and boast like some uncanny cross between Waylon Jennings and Kanye West. I think the song is kind of awful and kind of admirable. The rest of the album I think is superb.

One of the things I like about Church is that he plays with his image as much as his sound. In this one, he makes himself the butt of the joke — the guy getting dumped, "one beer short of a 12-pack," as he puts it. He's the dupe, a heartbroken rube. "Cold One" starts like a terse bit of country-rock, but builds to a frenetic, old-fashioned country hoedown. Elsewhere on this album, Church toys with clichéd images such as love as a roller-coaster ride. And in "Like a Wrecking Ball," Church deploys a trite image that Miley Cyrus recently used to great pop effect to make his own terrific song — a lovely ballad about the pleasures of good sex.

Just when you thought the album had recovered from the title-song freak-out, one tune near the end of The Outsiders goes over the top again: "Devil Devil" commences with a prelude; Church spends its first three minutes reciting some doggerel poetry about Nashville as a "princess of darkness," nothing less than the daughter of Satan. This nutty slap at Music City includes salutes to Kris Kristofferson and the man who I suspect is probably Church's favorite poet, Shel Silverstein. After that, "Devil Devil" settles into its core melody.

Shrewd, defiant, sly and funny, Eric Church has succeeded in what he set out to do: He's using the power he's accrued from making hit records to make exactly the kind of album he wants, heedless of industry approval. And this is how good he is: Now he'll go out and — through the singles he'll release, the touring he'll do and the videos he'll make — probably turn this personal project into a big commercial deal. The Outsiders deserves nothing less.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Eric Church has sold millions of records, won number country music industry awards, and has toured with established stars in his genre. But Church also likes to cultivate a rebellious rock n' roll image and rock critic Ken Tucker says Church's new album called "The Outsiders" takes this image-making to new extremes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE OUTSIDERS")

ERIC CHURCH: They're the in crowd, we're the other ones. It's a different kind of cloth that we're cut from. We let our colors show where the numbers ain't. We're the paint where there ain't supposed to be paint. (singing) That's who we are. That's how we roll. The outsiders. The outsiders. Our women get hot, our leathers get stained when we saddle up and ride 'em in the pouring rain. We're the junkyard dogs, we're the alley cats.

(singing) Keep the wind at our front and the hell at our back. That's who we are...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Eric Church is working on a level that few other country artists of his generation can touch. Now, one of the things I mean by that is that Church is willing to take big chances such as the song that led off this review, "The Outsiders," the title song and clearly a manifesto he's proud of. The composition is a big, overblown mess of a song - a country-rock-rap-metal explosion, with lyrics that brag and boast like some uncanny cross between Waylon Jennings and Kanye West.

I think the song is kind of awful and kind of admirable. The rest of the album I think is superb.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

CHURCH: (singing) It was a perfect day for the end of May, they say a record high. I was staring at that green water when out of the blue and by surprise she had her feet up on the color as she put our love on ice. She grabbed a beer, said I'm outta here, and walked out of my life. That was a cold one I never will get back. If she had to leave, did she have to leave me one beer short of a 12 pack?

(singing) She left me hanging high and dry in the summer sun. Damn, babe, that was a cold one.

TUCKER: That's "Cold One," a phrase that works as a reference to a beer and as an insult - a girl who jilts the narrator in a chilly manner. One of the things I like about Church is that he plays with his image as much as his sound. In this one, he makes himself the butt of the joke - the guy getting dumped, one beer short of a 12-pack, as he puts it.

He's the dupe, a heartbroken rube. "Cold One" starts like a terse bit of country-rock, but builds to a frenetic, old-fashioned country hoedown. Elsewhere on this album, Church toys with clichéd images such as love as a roller-coaster ride. And in "Like a Wrecking Ball," Church deploys a trite image that Miley Cyrus recently used to great pop effect to make his own terrific song - a lovely ballad about the pleasures of good sex.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A WRECKING BALL")

CHURCH: (singing) I, I've been gone, been gone too long. Singing my songs on the road. Another town and one more show. And I'm coming home. Don't give a damn what these keys are for, I'm going to knock down that front door and I'm going to find out what that house is made of. Been too many nights since it's felt us make love. I want to rock some sheetrock, knock some pictures off the wall. Love can be like a wrecking ball.

TUCKER: Just when you thought the album had recovered from the title-song freak-out, one tune near the end of "Outsiders" goes over the top again. "Devil Devil" commences with a prelude; Church spends its first three minutes reciting some doggerel poetry about Nashville as a princess of darkness, nothing less than the daughter of Satan.

This nutty slap at Music City includes salutes to Kris Kristofferson and the man who I suspect is probably Church's favorite poet, Shel Silverstein. After that, "Devil Devil" settles into its core melody.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEVIL DEVIL")

CHURCH: (singing) Devil, devil, devil. I feel a print on my mind. I've got nine things going wrong right now and her leaving makes a dime. I'm mad as hell and drunk and, well, tonight I guess we'll see. Devil, devil, you're about to lock horns with me. Level, level, his search is solid ground, his swing swaying side to side and he's tossing me around. I got a hanker for an anchor.

(singing) to steady up my bow. Level, level, let's tie this rebel down. Crazy, crazy, calling out my name. I've got one foot on the pavement and the other's on a train. Going to save me, save me. And I know what's in store. Crazy, crazy. Hell, I've been there before.

TUCKER: Shrewd, defiant, sly and funny, Eric Church has succeeded in what he set out to do. He's using the power he's accrued from making hit records to make exactly the kind of album he wants, heedless of industry approval. And this is how good he is: Now he'll go out and - through the singles he'll release, the touring he'll do and the videos he'll make - will probably turn this personal project into a big commercial deal. "The Outsiders" deserves nothing less.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Eric Church's new album "The Outsiders." I'm Terry Gross. This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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