Tuesday, February 11, 2014

album review: 'the outsiders' by eric church

Here's a fun observation about mainstream country music: despite the dominance of male country acts, there aren't a lot of acts that focus on the darker edges of country music. You know the songs: the ones about kicking ass, drinking whiskey, playing hard and raising hell. And while you get some acts who try to talk about these subjects on mainstream radio, the majority of them aren't convincing, mostly because the instrumentation is so polished and clean and overproduced that none of the rough instrumental texture carries in to support the lyrics about crime, hard living, and the vast number of nastier topics most country musicians won't touch.

Yes, I'm talking about outlaw country, a genre that started in the 60s and lasted for a few decades before fragmenting into smaller and smaller scenes within country music, the majority of which doesn't get mainstream airplay. And believe me, that pisses me off, mostly because outlaw country is probably my favourite subgenre within country music, partially because I've always liked grimy Westerns, partially because I love murder ballads (and outlaw country is really one of the best genres for that type of song), and partially because there's a raw, potent authenticity to the music that just works for me. And what's so surprising - and ironic in a twisted sort of way - is that more bro-country acts don't even come close to utilizing the outlaw formula. After all, it's a subgenre focused on being badasses (at least on a superficial level) and I'm sure there are bro-country artists who would be attracted to the ubermasculine power fantasy of it all.

And on that note, let's talk about Eric Church. Now he's not a bro-country artist - hell, I'd have a hard time calling him a country act on some songs rather than Southern rock - but he definitely has his eyes fixed on outlaw country, a rarity for a successful country act in the mainstream. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen a country act try as hard as Eric Church does to be an outlaw - and what's all the more tragic is that he hasn't quite pulled it off. Maybe it's his voice not quite having the grit or texture on those first three albums, maybe it's his instrumentation which really comes across as trying way too hard to sound rough and impressive and ends up sounding stunningly inorganic, or maybe it's the fact he's just not a great songwriter in the tradition of Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, or Merle Haggard - either way, it's not quite clicking. 

Now don't get me wrong, Eric Church is by no means a bad artist, and I respect the hell out of him for trying as hard as he does, across the board. You're not going to find many mainstream country acts who put this much effort into their instrumentation and sound, especially when doing so could mean a loss of mainstream success. But maybe it's the clumsiness in the songwriting or the fact that Eric Church seems to be taking everything way too seriously, but every time I listened to his last album Chief, I was always struck by how little he was getting for all the effort. The sadly ironic thing is that on the looser tracks where Eric Church wasn't trying as hard and seemed to be having fun, the music was a lot better. 

Unfortunately, the early buzz surrounding Church's newest album suggested that he wasn't about to stop trying way too hard to be an outlaw. And now, we have his newest album titled The Outsiders, a title so on the nose that I can't help but raise an eyebrow and make comparisons with the S.E. Hinton novel that we all read in junior high (the one that was adapted into the film directed by Francis Ford Coppola and had Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Tom Waits, and C. Thomas Howell). But as much as I'd like to make jokes the entire review, I will endeavour to take this album as seriously as Eric Church: does he strike gold here?

Well, no. Oh God, no, he didn't. We have a special one in the house tonight, folks, because Eric Church's The Outsiders is a rare case indeed: the country album that tries way too hard and flames out in spectacular fashion. And it's across the board, from production to instrumentation to lyrics to theme. But to see it coming from one of the biggest names in modern mainstream country is something many haven't seen since Chris Gaines - and those of you familiar with that project are probably already gearing up for the worst.

Let's first talk about the elements that you'll notice from the very first track: namely, the instrumentation. Between the leaden guitars, the bizarre tempo changes, the attempts to be technical that go absolutely nowhere, some have branded the song a cross between progressive metal and country - but speaking as a longtime fan of progressive metal and country, I couldn't imagine songs more stunningly misconceived than the attempts Eric Church makes here. It sounds like Queensryche crossed with country - Geoff Tate's new, absolutely terrible brand of Queensryche, with little to no technical proficiency on display, no driving crescendo, and everything coming together into a meandering, curdled mess. Most of this is a factor of guitar tonal choices: to be blunt, for an album trying so hard to come across as rough and edgy, the guitars are astoundingly weak and lumpy, a slurry of flat chord progressions that have no force whatsoever.

Now granted, that might be an issue with production, which is incredibly sloppy for a major label release by a big-name artist. Who thought the overload of reverb would sound good on 'Like A Wrecking Ball', or the choice for none of the guitars on the slow ballads to have the slightest bit of texture or twang. Really, the production is closest to passable on the more modern country songs like 'Talladega' and 'Give Me Back My Hometown', because at least they reveal some flavour. But on the other hand you have songs like 'The Joint', which have these lumpy drum machines and turgid horns on a song tries to make smoking weed sound transgressive and dark and completely fails. Or take the song 'That's Damn Rock And Roll', a song that tries to cut back to 70s roots rock lyrics about survival but does it with the brawny, processed, utterly flat guitars that you found in bad hair metal with none of the technical skill behind it. And that's before you get to the offensive attempt at gothic country rock with 'Devil Devil', that tries to play the 'music = succubus' card with Nick Cave-esque grandeur that only reveals a nasty undercurrent of misogyny and a song that Eminem did eons better in '25 To Life' off of Recovery.

In fact, an Eminem comparison is actually apt in terms of musical maturity - because both artists make music directed at angry white boys who want to sound dark and edgy and yet have no idea what that really is. Both men are playing with an ideal of masculinity that's regressive and really quite juvenile when examined closely. But there's a marked distinction between Eminem and Eric Church, namely that Eminem is fully aware that he's spewing hateful nonsense and he wants people to hate him for it. His greater point about society at large is that so many people bought into the terrible rhetoric he spewed and what does that say about us? But does Eric Church have that level of self-awareness? Well... to be fair, at some degree, he does. The song 'A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young' does focus on the fact that he's older, married, and has kids, and that doesn't exactly fit well with the hard-living associated with the outlaw image, and he does acknowledge a certain hollowness in that lifestyle. Of course, when that song is immediately after the title track and the large chunks of this album that straightforwardly embrace his 'outlaw ideal' with complete seriousness, it strikes that 'insight' as incredibly disingenuous.

Because here's the sticking point and why this album fails: there's no original subtext or nuance on this record, and that's because Eric Church just isn't a very good songwriter. His lyrics are steeped in cliches of being an outlaw devoid of deeper context and weight, and it's all delivered with amateurish poetry that has no subtlety whatsoever. I'll say the same thing to Eric Church bragging about being an outlaw that I say to rappers who constantly brag about being real: if you have to keep telling me time and time again, I'll start thinking you're full of shit. Or take the song 'Dark Side', where he says he has to restrain his evil, cackling 'dark side' which lurks in the corner of his mind but he'll let it 'come out to play' if any 'thugs and ugly mugs dealing drugs and making noise' bother his family. But really, I don't buy that there's a real 'dark side' to Eric Church at all that hasn't been co-opted from real outlaws or Nick Cave's junk drawer. And on that note, going back to 'Devil Devil' (God, do I hate that song), the song is a tonal mess from a songwriting standpoint to the point where it's borderline parody for as over-the-top as it is. There's a reason why Charlie Daniels and Tenacious D framed their 'devil' songs as comedic, or in the case of Nick Cave, went for pitch-black material that's far more bleak, graphic, and genuinely menacing than Eric Church will ever be able to realistically pull off.

But even on a technical songwriting level this album does not hold up to much. Take 'Broke Record', a song about a girl that borders on obsessive but comes across filled with sloppy writing and repeated words within the song to fill up space (and also a broken record cliche that's been done to death). 'Cold One' seems to fill the role of a bro-country summer song, but even it doesn't rise to the good songs in that genre because it equates the heartache of a break-up with being one beer short of a twelve pack - and he's playing it straight. And then there's 'Roller Coaster' strikes me a poor-man's version of Brad Paisley's 'Runaway Train' from Wheelhouse, minus Paisley's charm, wit, and great guitar work (plus, it name-drops psychedelia in a way that shows Eric Church has no idea what psychedelic rock is) - but with the production and instrumentation, it's pop country on a supposedly outlaw country album, so what is it even doing here? I get the uneasy feeling there was a lot of label interference with the song selection of this record (Eric Church said he originally wrote over a hundred songs for this album and I believe it), where they grabbed the best and cobbled into something that was vaguely country and sellable, which leaves the album a tonal mishmash that doesn't flow together at all. There's no narrative throughline, there's no effective song sequencing, and the only element tying it all together is Eric Church's admirable but misplaced earnestness to approach a genre he barely understands. It's really telling that the best song on this record is 'Talladega', where he sings about the good memories he has with his family with NASCAR - and while I personally can't stand NASCAR, he manages to sell it and make it have some emotional weight (also, the guitar tonal choice is better than usual and there's a not-terrible guitar solo).

So look, I'm not castigating Eric Church for experimenting - the experiment didn't work, but that's what happens when you try something new. But honestly, this 'experiment' strikes me as stunningly misconceived and poorly executed, constantly compromised and undercut at every turn. Frankly, the album would have been better if it was weirder and darker and went further, actually pushed boundaries instead of name-dropping rock cliches and outlaw legends who did it better. As it is, Eric Church's The Outsiders brings his worst instincts to the forefront: a turgid slurry of bad guitar tonal choices, sloppy lyrics, haphazard production, and overwrought posturing that comes across as so calculated and inorganic that it completely falls flat for me. And once again, the real tragedy is that Eric Church is trying so damn hard to make this work - and it's not working at all. This album is a 4/10, and really, it should be lower. No recommendation from me here, just an observation: it's very telling that Jason Eady made Daylight & Dark, one of the best country albums thus far this year that explored traditional 'outlaw' themes and did it with restraint, nuance, and real intelligence - and it had way more of an impact on me than all of Eric Church's histrionics.

Maybe he should pick up that album - he might learn something.

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