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.