Eric Church’s credo concerning this album was ‘genres are dead’, and these twelve songs certainly seem to support that point. Normally these days, when a Country musician blurs genre barriers it results in the dilution of musical integrity, but Church makes the technique work for him far better than the various ‘Bro-Country’ acts, and this album is a bright spot in a country scene that was then dominated by shallow party songs and warmed-over tropes appropriated from Hip-Hop.
Church blends Outlaw Country, Southern Rock, Indie Folk and Contemporary R&B into an amazingly unique and distinctive sound that is the album’s primary appeal. Many of the songs feature a kind of murmured half-rapped delivery, including the title track, an ode to defiant nonconformism, and “That’s Damn Rock & Roll”, which is both an ode to and a deconstruction of rock culture. But Church has the charisma to make these passages quietly intense and genuinely threatening in a Clint Eastwood sort of way, rather than the kind of embarrassing desperation you get when Jason Aldean tries to do this.
“Give Me Back My Hometown” and “Talladega” are the hits, and they are the only places on the album where Church makes enough of a concession to pop conventions to offer radio-friendly take-home tunes, but they’re hardly the bland schlock-pop most crossover Country consisted of at the time, and it’s actually kind of surprising how successful they became in that era. “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” is a beautiful ballad with a particularly touching final verse, and “Dark Side” might just be the scariest Country song of the decade so far, all the more because it never rises above a whisper. And “The Joint”, with its mildly clever double-meaning title and quietly simmering delivery, makes for a satisfying album closer.
Granted, not every track is perfect. “Like a Wrecking Ball”, as enjoyable as it is, is built around a fairly heavy-handed sex joke, and the comic breakup song “A Cold One” skirts dangerously close to Bro-Country territory. And he does use several sexist terms that are no longer considered appropriate on the track “Devil, Devil”, although since he’s singing about Nashville rather than a literal woman, it’s not nearly as offensive as those lines might sound out of context.
Still, there wasn’t a single track on this album that I found hard to listen to, and the fascinating new musical sounds found on it are just too interesting for me to dismiss. If all you’ve heard from this album is “Give Me Back My Hometown” and “Talladega”, I highly recommend you check out the other tracks, which are more innovative, less conventional, and frankly, more interesting than the album’s more pop-friendly crossover hits.