PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Eric Church: The Outsiders

Eric Church is not as hard as he wants you to think, but his softness is what makes him interesting.

Eric Church
Label: Capitol Nashville
Title: The Outsiders
US Release Date: 2014-02-11
UK Release Date: 2014-02-11

I have an Eric Church T-shirt that a friend sent me a few months ago. He went to a tour in a muddy field somewhere near Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and since stadium country never moves east of Winnipeg, he sent a souvenir from Wisconsin to Montreal. The shirt is black, and has the legend “Eric Fucking Church” emblazoned on the front, in a font that is somewhere between Waylon and Ed Hardy. I didn't wear it for a long time, but I like Church well enough, and most of the people I encounter these days are Francophone, and so it went from back of the wardrobe to regular rotation. The last time I wore it, I was shopping at Ikea with an Anglican priest, who lives in rural Quebec, but who had bought a condo in town. It was the blandest activity that we could have done together. Except, we weren't married, and there was the presence of the church. Eventually a sales clerk asked me if it was a band, or something, and I told him yeah.

This was the most dangerous encounter I have had as an Eric Church fan. I keep thinking about that encounter when listening to Church’s new album. There is some skill and the odd frisson of danger. It is well produced, historically minded, not afraid to curse, but not nearly as dangerous as he thinks it is. Exactly how dangerous he is seems to be an ongoing question – not only of the music, but of the marketing, and the discussion around the music. Part of this is context. The first line on the first song on this album, says: “We aren't the in crowd / We are where the others are." He seems to be distancing himself from his bro-country superstars. There is some accuracy there. He doesn't have the playful eroticism of Luke Bryan, the good ol boy joviality of Justin Moore, the sentimentality of Jason Aldean, or the rhetorical openness of Brantley Gilbert. None of those would be aggrandizing enough to have their name on that t-shirt, and none of them would have the skill to create an album that is so unstable.

Maybe unstable is the wrong word, but noting why exactly he isn't bro-country might be a useful exercise. It has the small town songs, the jokey choruses, the breakup songs, and the details of places where rural working class and new suburbs enmesh. It does not have much of the hip-hop signifying that marks an important formal innovation (in fact, his previous song “Homeboy” seems to be not only a dismissal of hip-hop within the narrative of that song, but within the narrative of country music itself). But it has enough greasy rock veering into sleazy hair metal, that the refusal of purity is still present. But there are important differences which suggest that this might be the best bro-country album made yet, and perhaps a pattern for the genre to move forward. I think the two most important differences, are a historicity, and a profound self-awareness.

This historicity can be seen in the Waylon Jennings nod in that T-shirt, and in his last big single was called "Springsteen", suggesting that Ashbury Park might as well have been small town Tennessee. It can be seen here in the sinister, sung-spoke "Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess of Darkness)", which suggests that the devil not only has all the best tunes in rock, but in country songs – evenly mixed between men and women, between classic tunes and deep cuts, between work like Lacy J. Dalton’s “The Boy’s of 16th Avenue” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” – that the prelude breaks open into a chorus that is simultaneously about the dangers of fucking Eric Church, and a meta-textual discussion of the problems of country as a current genre.

That a song has such subtext, that its view of history carries the personal profound awareness can be seen in “That Is Rock and Roll”, with it’s ironic line about rock and roll not being the middle figure on a “T-shirt the establishment is trying to sell”, amidst other negations, including long hair, tattoos, and cocaine. But it is what rock and roll is interesting, it features negotiating with preachers, with doing what one loves, about being broke, but also about being on stage. It floats on a bedrock of feedback and distortion, never quite working out what rock and roll is, but knowing that he is part of it.

The self awareness can lead to a kind of camp distance though. As much as I appreciated this album, the percussion is strong, the guitars are as good or better than anything on Use Your Illusion, his voice does marvels, fitting into the crevices of complicated narratives of desire and loss, it never quite stops being a work that tries to convince us. The problem is that Church is good enough that he no longer has to work so hard. It has a weird tension then. The work succeeds in being about sex, or rock and roll, or being a bad ass, but it is also about what it means to sing about these things. The danger or the seduction might be real enough, but it is also performative enough that one is never sure what real is. Almost as performative as swearing on the front of a T-shirt, and convincing suburban boys that it might be dangerous, but not as dangerous as trying to get those T-shirts sold at anyplace but his website or his concerts.

This suggests that I am accusing him of a kind of hypocrisy. But country as a genre is full of self-fashioning though, and has been doing meta since the beginning. Much of this is no different than Dolly Parton singing “Dumb Blonde”, Loretta singing “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, Johnny Cash singing “Man in Black”, Waylon Jennings’ flying W logo, Willie Nelson’s braids, or most of what Bocephus has done for the last 30 years. Church is so good at the commercial that he will never be an outsider, but he also knows how well the safe outsider sells, and how successful the well packaged rebel can be. This might be cynicism, but pop music is as much about the sizzle as it is about the steak, and no one plays both ends against the middle as efficiently as Church.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Is Carl Nevill's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.