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.