Eric Church might look like the traditional macho country badass — the new sheriff defending good ol’ country music from them pretty boys and their trendy pop frills. But what sets Church apart isn’t just the trucker hat he prefers to a Stetson, but his admirable conviction that you can’t stay where you’re at by standing still.
On The Outsiders, Church’s fourth album, you’ll hear all sorts of noises you don’t expect from a mainstream country album: marching-band trombones, down-home funk, a campy goth recitation on “Devil, Devil (Prelude: Prince of Darkness)” that ranks with Vincent Price’s “Thriller” coda. But it’s the guitars you’ll remember — monstrously distorted, fantastically disproportionate to their surroundings, pounding like riotous inmates against the constraints the songwriting imposes. Heavy as it is, the arena crunch of title track can’t satisfy those guitars, which dig their heels in for a “Blam-blam-blam shreeee!” breakdown before reeling off into a full-on prog-rock fantasia.
Church himself has never sung so subtly, and the contrast with the instrumental bombast suggests an action hero striding coolly forward as a series of carefully choreographed detonations consume his enemy’s fortress. He tends to the words of “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” as carefully as Alan Jackson might, and on the steamy “Like a Wrecking Ball” he sidles up to his sweetie rather than pummeling her defenses.
But there’s an ornery dissatisfaction at the core of Church’s innovation, and it takes a power ballad to put it across. “Give Me Back My Hometown” covers familiar lyrical ground: An ex-lover’s memory haunts those places the singer once thought his. But as the music swells, Church seemingly voices a larger, shared sense of loss, that free-floating 21st-century American suspicion that someone, though we can’t agree who, has swindled us out of what we deserve.