Nathan Michel makes all kinds of music. His band Hospitality recently released their second full-length on Merge Records. He’s also released four solo recordings of experimental pop music on the labels Sonig, Skipp and Tigerbeat6, and he studied music composition for many, many years, for some reason. You can find out more about him here and follow Hospitality on Twitter.
I know very little about Eric Church, or country music, for that matter. I decided to write about Church’s new record because I thought my ignorance would provide a kind of “pure” critical perspective. I read no bios, saw no photographs, listened to no prior music by Eric Church. I even brainstormed about what I thought the record might sound like before I actually heard it. I suspected it would mix country and hip-hop (I had a vague sense that Church was part of a genre called “New Country,” which does this kind of thing), and I imagined his voice would have a country twang, which it does. But I did not expect to discover a record as complex and musically adventurous as The Outsiders.
The first song, the title track, is a manifesto. In the middle of the song Church is joined by a huge group of men — his “band of brothers” — singing “That’s who we are/That’s how we roll.” But this manifesto — this “menifesto,” if you will — leaves questions unanswered. Just who is Church and his group claiming to be, and just how do they roll? If indeed they are “the outsiders” of the album title, who or what are they outsiders to? Who are they declaring themselves in opposition to?
Let’s start with the genre called “new country.” I’m pretty sure Church falls into this category. “New country” mixes elements of country music — the twangy vocals, the shimmering acoustic guitars — with a sleeker, more compressed pop production style that borrows freely from rock, hip-hop and straight-up pop. The Outsiders is full of this kind of genre-mashing. The album begins, for example, with a psychedelic, swirling phaser-ed electric guitar that sounds much more like Dark Side of the Moon than it sounds like Hank Williams. Over this guitar, Church enters, lightly rapping, rather than singing: “They’re the in crowd/We’re the other ones/It’s a different type of cloth that we’re cut from.” So right from the start, Church’s musical choices mirror what he’s singing about. The phaser on his guitar tells us this isn’t your run-of-the-mill country album, but something odder. The swirling guitar part could even be seen as a metaphor for Church’s mixing of genres, a primordial soup, out of which Church’s creation myth — his new country manifesto — is born.
And born it is, Athena-like, fully formed, as Church’s rapping and guitar give way, at 45 seconds, to the full band kicking in with a swaggering, Chili Peppers-like, hip-hop-infused beat and a wall of distorted guitars. It’s on this second chorus that Church is joined by a ton of men singing “whoa-oh-oh-ooh-oh,” their declarative “That’s who we are/That’s how we roll” chorus now transformed into a wordless melody. From there the track gets even weirder. With sudden key shifts and abrupt tempo changes, shards of electric guitar chords hammer themselves toward a jam that sounds like something from Fragile era-Yes. The primordial soup has now molded itself into solid rock; asteroids and stars are slamming into each other, forming planets. The track then morphs itself into a final shuffle groove that gradually winds down, leaving Church to sing the last “That’s who we are” a cappella. But his voice bends this final “are” upward, casting a shadow of doubt on all the swagger and confidence of the more declarative parts of the song. The identity of Church’s outsiders is still a work in progress. It will take the rest of the album to sort it out.
The next song, “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young,” retreats from the swagger and stylistic mashup of the opening track into a more traditional country ballad. It’s pretty much just Church and his acoustic guitar on this one, an intimate and beautiful James Taylor-like song about growing old. Church sings about grey hairs and turning 36, wondering how he “outlived Hank and Jesus.” It’s also a love song: “I put the rage in the river/the roll in the thunder/but you kept me from going under/when that current got too heavy,” Church sings over a strong chord progression.
“A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” is a song of both regret and of gratitude. There’s regret and nostalgia for lost youth — a youth that can be frozen and immortalized when our heroes die young. But Church also expresses a quiet resignation that he might “make it 30 more” years and gratitude for the person with whom he’ll share these years: “So baby when you bow your head tonight/Could you tell the Lord I’ve changed my mind/And with you I’d like to live forever.” This is a song of maturity, of letting go of youthful ideas about living hard and dying young and accepting the mundanity of growing old, grey hairs and all.
There are also radio-ready hit songs on The Outsiders. “Cold One” uses beer as a metaphor for a romance gone south: “She grabbed a beer and said I’m outta here and walked out of my life… That was a cold one.” The chorus arrives on the words “cold one” at the musical high point of the song. Another song, “Talladega,” uses this same technique: “I can see Billy smiling when we finally made it… to Talladega.” Again, the lyrics echo what’s happening in the music. Billy and crew arrive in Talladega just as the music itself arrives at the tonic, or home, chord, creating a powerful synergy between lyrical meaning and musical meaning. A final example of this melding of musical meaning and lyrics is in “Broke Record,” where Church sings, “You got my heart skip-skip-skip-skipping a beat,” and the music mimics the skipping of a broken record.
This ability to deliver the musical and lyrical hook at the same time is a powerful and satisfying technique because the central metaphor of the song — the song’s thesis — is revealed in the chorus (which is often also the title of the song). This gives the entire song a sense of directionality, purpose and meaning. From a songwriting perspective, that’s also not easy to achieve. Wondering whether Church’s songs were written by a committee of professional Nashville songwriters, I looked up the credits. Church himself is given first songwriting credit on all the songs, though there are usually two or three others listed as co-writers. And so while this kind of chorus-centered songwriting can seem formulaic, it never feels gratuitous or manipulative in Church’s music, partly because his metaphors are often kind of funny (“Cold One,” “Broken Record”) or, in the case of “Talladega,” phonetically satisfying. The long vowels in the word “Talladega” have an inherent musicality that’s begging to be sung, and Church sets the words over a wistful melody that rises to the “day” of Talladega, then falls, as if the word itself contains a complete narrative arc.
In other songs on “The Outsiders” Church continues to explore the tension between the introspection of “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” and the brash, youthful energy of the title track. “Dark Side” and “Like a Wrecking Ball” delve further into themes of self-destruction , while “Give Me Back My Hometown” sees Church again joined by his rousing group of men stomping and singing wordless choruses over a chord progression that has the anthemic weight of U2, Coldplay or Arcade Fire. The album ends with a sultry, mellow grooving whisper of a song called “The Joint,” where Church sings about “the only joint my mama ever burned.” The song fades out with a stoned, trippy groove, Church’s gravelly voice repeating the word “burned.” The record seems to return to the that primordial soup of the opening phased guitar.
On The Outsiders Church at once embraces his country music origins but also tells us that “pure” country music is no longer possible; it’s music of the past. For Church, country music is the “heap of metal,” the “cloud of smoke,” the “rusted-out Chevy” he sings about in “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young.” The “new country” that Church is making expresses heartfelt nostalgia for the country music of the past, but is also open to hip-hop, rock, pop and other influences. The cynical reading of this genre-mixing is that it’s just a way for artists to capture more market share by appealing to broader and broader audiences with music that has a little country here, a touch of hip-hop there. It’s something for everyone to like, music made by committee. But I don’t think Church is guilty of this. The adventurous arrangements and extended musical passages of songs like “The Outsiders” and “Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess Of Darkness)” on the one hand, and the honest self-exploration of the more introspective songs — combined with a real feel for the alchemy between words and music — make Eric Church’s The Outsiders a complex, satisfying record about the search for personal and communal identity.