Album Review – Eric Church’s “The Outsiders”

Let me begin by saying that I don’t want to write this review. If I had my druthers I would just ignore this album, and focus on something else. But in the face of an absolute onslaught of requests, I will give my personal opinion unfettered and unabridged. I’ll also preface this business by saying that if you like or love this album, that’s all that matters, and my opinion or anyone elses should not sway you from your enjoyment of this music.

Also, before anyone says that it doesn’t matter what kind of album Eric Church released, I would write a negative review for it because of some predisposed bias, or because I do not like the guy on a personal level, go read this review, this review, this review, this review, and take into consideration that his last album Chief was my choice of the albums nominated to be the winner during the last cycle of both the CMA and ACM Awards.

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eric-church-the-outsidersTo put it bluntly, as an album, Eric Church’s The Outsiders is garbage. Does that mean there’s no good songs on it? No, there are some good songs on it, and a few good moments in otherwise not good songs. But as an album, The Outsiders is an absolute, colossal failure of process. It is a muddy mess, with no compass, direction, theme, groove, cohesiveness, or underlying thread connecting the disjointed, ill-conceived and poorly-executed song ideas simply meant to show of how different Eric Church is with no other underlying message or originality of either concept or story. Simply put, The Outsiders is a face plant of the creative process, posing to be “artistic”.

Eric Church is reported to have written a whopping 121 songs for the album before he hit the studio. And judging by the result, I believe him, and wouldn’t be surprised if he’s selling that number short. Apparently we’re supposed to be impressed that 121 songs were vetted for this album, but it speaks to songwriting by formula as opposed to inspiration, and is one of the reasons for the flat, uninspired, and unoriginal result when looking past the histrionics this album contains.

The Outsiders is an exercise of finding the biggest wall available and throwing a disparate hodgepodge of disconnected ideas and undisciplined influences against it to see what sticks. As much as we were sold from the very beginning of this album release that everything would resolve and make sense once we heard the entire project in context, the individual songs released before this album make even less sense now, and the songs as a whole resolve to a sum lesser than their individual parts.

But you won’t hear this from the vast majority of critics. They can’t shut the hell up about how brilliant this album is simply because it isn’t country rap, and it’s not “bro-country” (and UNAPPROVED term).

First off, I refuse to give into addition by subtraction and give undue credit to music simply because it isn’t as shitty as something else. Is The Outsiders better than Chase Rice, Cole Swindell, or whatever the flavor on the moment in pop country is? Maybe, though at least these guys have some idea of direction. But that doesn’t automatically make Eric Church and The Outsiders “good”. I wholeheartedly subscribe to the idea that music should be judged against it’s peers, but Eric Church’s peers as a reigning Album of the Year winner aren’t Tyler Farr, and Dan + Shay, they’re George Strait and Taylor Swift, and these artists have a theme, a sound, and a direction.

The high-reaching superlatives I have seen attributed to this album from noteworthy and credible sources is nothing short of disturbing, and even at times dangerous. Each to their own opinion, and we can agree to disagree, but when NPR says, “Eric Church is working on a level that few other country artists of his generation can touch,” this speaks to the continued discounting of the leadership the women of country music, and the men of Americana and independent country are displaying. I couldn’t disagree with NPR’s sentiment any more, especially seeing how The Outsiders really isn’t a country album, at all. There’s one track you could call country. Otherwise it is purely rock, and this misappropriation of the “country” term is yet another offense disqualifying this album from being something that should be considered “bold” or “epic”.

One of the biggest proselytizers for this album has been Eric Church himself. “It’s a very polarizing song,” Eric said about “The Outsiders” title track to The New York Times. “Half the people hated it, half thought it was the greatest thing they ever heard. But I think that wide range of opinions means you made something artistic, you actually made art.”

Oh, so if you start off with a Waylon phase guitar, lead into a heavy metal song, then speed bump the groove with a couple of interjected Pork Soda prog rock bass guitar solos, add a little pseudo-rapping, and people discredit it for being too busy and lacking direction, that’s how you know it’s “artistic”?

The whole point of this album seems to be to set up Eric Church as this forward-thinking force in country music. But just because you take a bunch of ill-fitting parts and slap them together—as Eric does in numerous songs, and with the overall song selection itself—doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being “artistic.” It’s like people who want to be known as “weird” might dye their hair strange colors, get strange piercings or tattoos, or wear shocking clothing. But this is all superficial. The question is, is this something that is truly groundbreaking, or has it never been done before because it’s ill-advised and doesn’t work?

I don’t even know if the music on this album matters. Eric Church has put his back into cultivating this “Outsider” persona, and the music just seems to be a vehicle to the cultural identity he wants to convey, and his fans want to identify with. The music is almost an inconvenience to Eric Church. As he’s said many times, he hates writing songs. Aside from a few songs that seem to come from the heart, The Outsiders is formulaic themes and sonic trickery. For a song to connect with an individual, it music convey a deep, human feeling. Are you telling me that Eric Church had 121 deep, original human feelings since his last release that he was able to translate into song? The human inspiration on this album was spread so thin across so much material, it was almost completely lost once these tracks were being zapped onto compact disk.

And back to the point of praising The Outsiders for not being “bro-country” or country rap, I’m not sure if those people’s review copies are missing tracks, but I am hearing both these elements, as well as EDM electronic wankery make an appearance on the album. Is it to the degree of some of Eric Church’s mainstream male counterparts? No, but the song “Cold One” is a total bro-country beer song, and “That’s Damn Rock & Roll” features multiple stanzas of rapping. You listen to a song like “Talladega,” and it’s straight up pop country. Leadership? Boldness? The songs that could be accidentally identified with having these qualities are the album’s worst tracks because they’re simply a bunch of ill-fitting parts slapped together.

There are some decent songs on The Outsiders though. But to grade the album fairly, you have to break it down to the individual songs. The songs themselves are too disjointed to critique collectively. As for the album itself, I would give it:

1 1/2 of 2 guns DOWN.

Individual Song Reviews

1. “The Outsiders”

Beyond my original review for this song, I’d like to point out how we were told some of the strangeness of the music and message of this song would all resolve and make sense when put in the context of the entire album. Of course, as always with theses promises, this wasn’t the case whatsoever. In the context of the album, this song comes across as even more ill-advised. There really was no “Outsiders” theme holding the work together.

“The Outsiders” is an attempt to write and produce a song by aggregating popular sonic elements and trying to squeeze them together instead of simply drawing a story and three chords from inspiration. The result is a Frankenstein-like monster; a colossus of corporate music that threatens to kill its makers. Though this type of machination might be acceptable, or even appreciated in some outer fringes of the metal world, in the country music format it’s downright laughable. (read full review)

Two guns down.

2. A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young

One of the recurring themes of The Outsiders is that “sounds familiar” feel. Eric seems to always shine in the stripped-down format. His pretentiousness is what keeps most from his music, and in his unguarded moments is when he draws you in. And so even though “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” is a song that has been done many, many times, this is one of the albums better tracks.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

3. Cold One

For the people proselytizing that The Outsiders as the anti “bro-country” epic, this song is a problem. It’s not your typical laundry list, dirt road and tailgate song, but it’s pretty close, with its premise beginning and ending with beer. Though it’s arguably the most country track on the album, there’s some pop and rock elements here, like the harsh, purposely-ugly guitar part meant to mimic the blurred mind of a beer binge, and the record skipping near the end that refers to the new school, EDM influence creeping into the country format. These things aren’t Eric Church leading, they’re Eric Church following. Yes, the sped up bridge in the middle of the song is pretty fun, but again is a borrowed, often-called upon element. The story is nothing special, though the wit of the “Cold One” double meaning is appreciated. Not bad, but not as good as some will sense at first listen.

1 1/4 of 2 guns up.

4. Roller Coaster Ride

Oh Eric!

Folks, this isn’t a pop country song, this is a pop song pure and simple. From the storyline, to the sonic elements, this song was built to be the soundtrack to a future Lexus commercial. Church’s “artistic” touch is to add an unfortunate synthesized sound bed that comes streaking in and out throughout the song. Picture yourself as Atreyu riding on the back of the Luck Dragon through the wispy clouds of Fantasia. Church fans may fall in love with this song, but hey, that’s the allure of pop music; it’s instantly catchy in lieu of delivering long-term substance. I guess Church thinks he makes up for at all at the end when his synthesized sounds turn sinister. Laughable.

Two guns down.

5. Talladega

Ha! This song has been done a million and one times, and yet again for all the “epic” and “artistic” praise this album has received, here is another placid and predictable, straightforward pop country tune. It’s a nostalgic, reminiscent song built mostly around the power of the word “Talladega”, but there’s a decent sense of story here, and the song works, mostly because Church resists the urge to add some ill-advised guitar solo or electronic interjections like he does on other tunes. He should see if Rascal Flatts wants to cut this on their next record.

1 1/4 of 2 guns up.

6. Broke Record

Listening to the song was one of numerous times I kept picturing Sheryl Crow circa late 90’s when listening to this album. This is a catchy little rhythm-based tune that adeptly slides its fun lyrics in between the starts and stops and gets your foot tapping just fine. Aside from a very short moment heading into the bridge and a pretty good acoustic guitar solo, this is a silly little roots pop song that is harmless, but certainly nothing special; quick to grab your attention, but soon to be forgotten.

1 1/4 of 2 guns up.

7. Like A Wrecking Ball

Not bad at all. Could have done with a little less reverb on Eric’s vocal signal, but this is one of the few songs on the album that seems to come from a personal, inspired story from Eric Church himself instead of an easy-to-fall-back-on trope of modern popular music. At the same time, there’s really nothing special here. For once, some of Eric’s studio wizardry may have helped give this song a little something to make it memorable. Like virtually every song on the album, there’s nothing country about it whatsoever. But it works I guess.

1 1/2 of 2 guns up.

8. That’s Damn Rock & Roll

It was at this point in the album when I wondered why the hell I was even listening to this. What type of aberration of the term “country ” allowed this album, and this song to come into my life where I would be forced to give my opinion on it?

Between the Duran Duran tone of the electric guitar, rapping, the Annie Lennox banshee screams (which by the way, in the appropriate context would be awesome), and the general bellicose grandstanding about the format Eric Church wish he was in instead of the industry that is promoting his music, this song is ill-conceived on just about every single level. Some of the lyrics and the sentiment behind the song will get some people’s blood pumping, but this is all a derivative of pushing sonic buttons and pandering to constituencies instead of some original expression or the delivery of any true substance.

This is out generation’s “We Built This City” from Starship. Marconi plays the Mamba.

Two guns down.

9. Dark Side

Finally everything comes together. Where the rest of the album generally takes the form of ill-fitting parts, with Church matching up audio features that he wants to play with, with songs and themes that they have no business being in, here a progressive, stripped-back, and tasteful approach is the perfect texture for the story that you can tell has a truly personal meaning to Eric. This song is nothing short of excellent.

Two guns up.

10. Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess of Darkness)

Pure marketing and pandering to Eric Church’s Outlaw/Outsider manufactured image with no redeeming value. A farce. Bullshit. An insult to the intelligence of every listener.

Two guns way down.

11. Give Me Back My Hometown

To the mainstream country ear, “Give Me Back My Hometown” must sound nothing short of foreign and refreshing. But to an ear with a more wide sense of perspective, especially when the heavy bass drum beat and hand claps kick in about 1/3”²rd of the way through the song, a strong, pungent Lumineers influence reveals itself quite obviously…Once again we see a symptom of Music Row being 18 months behind the relevancy arch, and just now catching up with what was cool last year, despite feeling cutting-edge within the format….All those observations aside though, simply based off of the ear test, “Give Me Back My Hometown” is not bad. The song works. (read full review)

1 1/4 of 2 guns up.

12. The Joint

I don’t know. A stupid amalgam of sound to let you know how awesome and creative Eric Church is.

One gun up, one gun down.

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