Some of the best rock’n’roll comes out of Nashville and is called “country.” Toby Keith, Brad Paisley, Miranda Lambert, Montgomery Gentry, the Band Perry, Keith Urban — they can stomp Slade-sized riffs to shake a pickup off the lawn, then get downright Bon Jovial. But Eric Church might be the first contemporary country act to remind you of Black Sabbath.
While Taylor Swift gave it up to “Tim McGraw,” Church fired up his daddy’s lighter to the strains of “Springsteen” on his 2011 breakthrough, Chief. That excellent record rocked hard and smart in the name of “some long-haired hippie prophet preaching from the book of Johnny Cash,” but he levels up on The Outsiders. The opening title track swaggers out of S. E. Hinton and onto side two of Master of Reality, as Church and his band prepare to storm heaven with “hell at our backs.” “That’s Damn Rock & Roll” comes on like AC/DC with a flashier bassist before stuttering into a Billy Joel rap about “when the Clash crashed the party and the party got loud / And the party turned into an angry crowd.” The guitar solo on “Talladega” could fill the arena in the video for “Paradise City” all by itself. This ain’t rock’n’roll — this is assault with a deadly weapon.
But The Outsiders isn’t just a headbanger’s ball. It has Tusk-magnitude ambition. On “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young,” a lovely ballad about wondering “how you outlived Hank or Jesus,” Church stands where Chrissie Hynde and Carrie Brownstein and Jason Isbell stood before him, joyfully bewildered to find himself in midlife when he’d always thought he’d end up “a heap of metal / In a cloud of smoke.” “Cold One” would be sharp but standard CMT fare if not for the horns and whoops sticking out at odd angles like a New Orleans jazz funeral. “Like a Wrecking Ball” locks into a slinky Tony Camillo groove as Church sexts his wife: “I want to rock some sheetrock / Knock some pictures off the wall.” And “Roller Coaster Ride” is — hell, I don’t know what. It sounds like a ping-pong ball wrote it for Haim to sing.
Indeed, the arrangements on The Outsiders can get a trifle busy. I guess there’s no reason in principle a country record shouldn’t recall Tom Waits in let’s-see-what-sound-this-thing-makes mode, but Church’s tenor doesn’t really need any more embellishment than a single Gibson can provide. Regardless, producer Jay Joyce has made even the cowbells and wolf whistles sound great — listen to “Give Me Back My Hometown,” with its tapestry of U2 synth wash and “We Will Rock You” bleacher stomp. It’s a song tailor-made for Taylor, but Church (who co-wrote everything here) brings it home with such suavity, you want to hear what he’d do with her “All Too Well.” “My friends try to cheer me up / Get together at the Pizza Hut,” he sings, then: “These sleepy streetlights on every sidewalk side street / Shed a light on everything that used to be,” clipping each syllable like Jay Z when he was hungry.
There are at least four perfect songs on The Outsiders, and only one outright dud, “Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess of Darkness),” which is not, apparently, a Blind Guardian outtake. Church forgets everything he knows about metaphor on this overwrought clunker: “The roads to and from [Nashville’s] heart are littered with creative souls” and “She goes seeking seed / For her loins so fertile.” There’s also some ugly race-baiting on “Dark Side” — Church threatens to shoot some “thugs” who are, mirabile dictu, “dealing drugs.” Have we learned nothing from “Beer for My Horses”?
But mostly, this is the kind of record critics imagine Kanye keeps making: a freakish statement of confidence and power from an artist in full command of his gifts. Church can turn from consummate studio pro to unruly rebel rouser on a midnight-train-whine-thin dime. With “the rage in the river and the roll in the thunder,” “a hip-shakin’ devil on a stage in Tupelo” shaking off “the small-town Barney Fifes / And bloodhounds,” he can sound tender but never tame, heartbroken but always huge. Nashville has the deepest grab-bag in contemporary pop right now, but nothing else comes together like Eric Church in the wild.