“Keep On,” the hardest-rocking song from Eric Church’s third album, opens in a bar. Church stares at a beautiful woman — which, naturally, doesn’t sit so well with the cowboy who’s currently talking her up. A fight looks imminent. But then Church puffs his chest and dishes some badass verbal threats, and the other dude backs down. Church gets the girl, and we get a blazing county-rock song that’s both slick and Skynyrd-esque. One of country music’s best young songwriters, Church routinely comes across as a tough guy and a pop craftsman, and on Chief he sticks to rough-and-tumble fundamentals: songs of empty bottles and broken hearts, of sin and redemption.
What partly sets the North Carolina native apart from other talented cowboy hats is his affinity for classic rock: There are big riffs and hard-charging guitars all over Chief. More importantly, Church’s lyrics are as sharp as his hooks. “Drink in My Hand,” is a pro-booze sing-along that should light up barroom jukeboxes across the land, while on “Springsteen,” the Boss’s songs conjure memories of teenage love. And this tough guy goes out on a tender note: “Over When It’s Over” is a busted-love ballad with one of the prettier choruses pop music will kick up all year.