#1 Review in America: Eric Church’s “The Outsiders” and the so-called death of genre
One thing that I appreciate about contemporary country music is that it is currently the only truly popular genre in the United States that predominantly features real musicians playing real instruments. Top 40 and hip-hop, the two other genres that dominate the current radio landscape (discounting classic rock stations), are characterized by synthesized instruments and pre-programmed beat. That’s all well and good, but there’s something reassuring in knowing that Nashville is still a place where talented musicians sit down in a room and record songs that will bring meaning to millions of listeners across the nation, some of which was even written by the frontman or frontwoman (!).
Call me old-fashioned or nostalgic or a Luddite blowhard, but a part of me is glad that there’s at least one city in America where mandolin players can still find gainful employment. And at least one album where the bedrock sounds of America’s country music (dobro, banjo, and slide guitars galore) found liberal usage was on Eric Church’s latest album The Outsiders.
Despite the instrumentation of The Outsiders‘ 12 tracks, Church doesn’t quite see the album as a country album. In fact, Church went so far as to declare the death of genres like country, and there’s some truth to that in his 2014 LP. Just like Taylor Swift’s EDM-ification of pop country or the rock star posturing of the genre’s stars, Church’s album further blurs the lines of country’s aesthetic.1 Midwestern stadium rafter-shaking rawk songs like “That’s Damn Rock & Roll” or the album’s first single “The Outsiders” could go toe-to-toe with Kiss any day of the week. Elsewhere on the album, Church gets his sensual funk on with “Like a Wrecking Ball,” where the force of Mr. Church’s desire to get inside your pants is only paralleled by some troubling implications viz-a-viz Miley.2 Things even get pretty far-out freaky with the spoken-word intro “Princess of Darkness” that serves as a prelude to “Devil, Devil.”
The Outsiders certainly refuses to fit nicely into Nashville’s standard paradigm, but there’s no mistaking it for a country album. At its core, the style, subject matter, sound, and aesthetic of The Outsiders are all straight-up country. I imagine that every track on the album sounds better while drinking Bud Light with women in Confederate flag bikinis or driving a pickup truck down a red-state highway, which is pretty much my standard test to see if something qualifies as “country.” “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” and “Dark Side” remind me of the vocal-and-guitar openings of many a Garth Brooks ballad, but with lyrics that would make Waylon Jennings proud. The wordplay of “Cold One”—comparing a red-blooded American woman to the protagonist’s favorite chilled American lager—and the wistful celebration of “Talladega” locates Church’s subject matter firmly within country’s lineage. And then there’s my favorite track on the album, “Give Me Back My Hometown,” a single on par with Church’s 2011 crossover hit “Springsteen” and one that showcases the beer-soaked nostalgia Church specialized in: melancholy songs that remember classic rock and George Jones as fondly as Friday night high school football games.
Rather than saying that Eric Church’s The Outsiders exists outside of the country paradigm, I think the album can best be understood as a more commercial and popular incarnation of alternative country. Alt-country, a part-genre part-movement rooted in Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression that continues to thrive to this day everywhere from Parquet Courts to Justin Townes Earle, basically entails playing country songs like rock songs and rock songs like country songs. Even if Church’s album isn’t as interesting or hard-edged as most alt-country artists, he’s doing the exact same thing by blending genres, instrumentation, and subject matter together in one LP. There’s the Drive-By Truckers-esque unnecessary-yet-awesome amount of guitars on “The Outsiders.” And the organ on “Like a Wrecking Ball,” as Steven Hyden noted, is more than a little reminiscent of Ryan Adams’ early work with Whiskeytown and as a solo artist. Church’s songs may not feel as heartfelt or as compelling as Alejandro Escovedo’s or The Bottle Rockets, but the mid-Americana character studies of all three would get along great in a bar.
The Outsiders may not be the death knell for genre in American music, but it certainly blurs the boundaries to a refreshing extent among pop albums. And while Eric Church may (deservedly) not have the credibility of most alt-country artists, he is certainly the most commercially successful artist to blend the seemingly disparate strains of Americana music into one chart-topping album.
So last week, Now That’s What I Call Music 49 was technically the number one album in America. Between binge-watching the Yellin’ Yeltsins and doing real people things I never got around to writing my review of the hit compilation, which I understand is an intolerable breach of contract with our viewers. What follows is my ranking, from number 21 to number 1, of each track on the album.
21. “Demons,” by Imagine Dragons
20. “Say Something,” by A Great Big World & Christina Aguilera
19. “Show Me What You Got,” by G.R.L.
18. “Work Work,” by Britney Spears
17. “Stay the Night,” by Zedd feat. Hayley Williams
16. “TKO,” by Justin Timberlake
15. “Do What U Want,” by Lady Gaga feat. R. Kelly
14. “Burn,” by Ellie Goulding
13. “Counting Stars,” by OneRepublic
12. “Unconditionally,” by Katy Perry
11. “Story of My Life,” by One Direction
10. “Gorilla,” by Bruno Mars
9. “Drink a Beer,” by Luke Bryan
8. “Trouble,” by Natalia Kills
7. “Wrecking Ball,” by Miley Cyrus
6. “Doesn’t Get Better,” by Alex Aiono
5. “Alienation,” by Morning Parade
4. “Last Love Song,” by ZZ Ward
3. “Royals,” by Lorde
2. “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” by Drake feat. Majid Jordan
1. “Timber,” by Pitbull feat. Ke$ha