What Eric Church’s detractors are reluctant or unwilling to admit is that when it comes to the very top of country music’s male talent, Eric Church outlasts his competition in both substance and imagination. Of course that says just as much about the vacuum of creativity at the top of mainstream country as it does Eric Church’s aptitude. But while country’s men are stuck in an ever-devolving rut of laundry list raps and rehashed platitudes, Eric Church has been, and continues to try and strike new ground. He may be rude and arrogant, he may be as calculating and image-driven as any. But dammit, he’s innovative.
His last album Chief won the Album of the Year from both the CMA and ACM in the last awards cycle, as it probably should have compared to its competition. Eric Church will never win the popularity contests like “Entertainer” or “Male Vocalist” categories because he’s made more enemies than friends in the industry and beyond. But his music’s unpredictability is the magic quotient that can’t be denied, and continues to win him loyal fans.
It’s been well over 2 years since Eric released his last album, and time was beginning to wear thin on him being able to continue the positive momentum that crowned Church an arena-level draw in near record time. And so chasing a rather cryptic video released a few days ago comes a new radio single called “The Outsiders.” As to be expected, the song is driven by the hard rock guitar that has become Eric’s signature, as well as an avant-garde approach to structure and flow.
Yes, “The Outsiders” is unpredictable. Yes it is innovative. But that’s about where the accolades end for this muddy mess of a tune that offers virtually no direction, is void of narrative, and does not really even build a cohesive groove to hang its hat on. Sure, Church may steer clear of ice cold beer and pickup trucks, but he runs into a wall trying to produce some modern country version of a prog rock opera, complete with chamber choir (or a synthetic version thereof), a weird Les Claypool-style bass guitar break speed bumping the song smack dab in the middle, giving way to a synthesized interlude that sounds like it ripped off the soundtrack to an 8-bit video game before the song resolves in an unbridled wank off of hair metal stunt guitar.
“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.
The message of “The Outsiders” draws upon Eric Church’s already-established marketing angle as an anti-star that represents the “rest of us” that have been disenfranchised by all the pretty, normal people. “We’re the other ones. It’s a different kind of cloth that were cut from,” Eric says, and then carries this theme throughout the song. Though this rhetoric may be tempting to the downtrodden, falling for its message is no less conformist that sporting a Florida Georgia line T-shirt. The overt nature of Church’s demographic baiting in “The Outsiders” is downright striking. Combined with the imagery from the initial “Outsiders” video, Eric looks to be wanting to make an army of misfits, and crown himself supreme leader.
This song has only been out for a day, and already a lot has been made of if this song should be considered country rap, or if Church is simply calling on a spoken cadence. I would say it is a little of both, which again touches on the manic, unsettled, unspecified, and confused nature of this song. Church more than likely wants to take advantage of the trend of avoiding melody in the verses, but doesn’t have the balls to go all Colt Ford on our asses. Lines like, “A players gonna play and a haters gonna hate,” and “that’s how we roll” may tip the scales of judgement towards the rap side of the world. But if you ask me, the rap vs. spoken word argument would only be worth the breath if “The Outsiders” had any redeeming value. Rap or not, it’s simply a bad, prog metal song being forced on the country format.
I don’t see this song becoming a commercial hit either. It’s way too confusing; way too fey. If Eric’s A&R folks decide to give it the hard sell to radio and maybe cut off the second half (which is a distinct possibility), it may raise a blimp on radio. But the majority of mainstream folks outside of Eric Church’s “Church Choir” will simply look at it sideways a wait for the next Luke Bryan ass shaker to wipe the memories of this weird song from their palette.
It’s simply one song, and shouldn’t be taken as the ultimate signifier of what to expect from Eric Church for his next two-year album cycle. But it sure doesn’t start it off with a good foot. Innovative or not, this one feels dramatically, dramatically overthought.
2 guns down.