If you want to hear Eric Church talk the talk, cue up “The Outsiders.”
The title track from his latest album is a rock-and-roll sing-along about life as a Nashville tough guy, saturated with misguided testosterone and the kind of riffs you can hear free of charge at your local Guitar Center. (Country stars evangelize in mysterious ways. Sometimes, they embarrass themselves.)
But if you want to hear Church walk the walk, keep listening. On his fourth and finest album, the 36-year-old North Carolina native doesn’t sound like an outsider so much as country music’s most thrilling futurist.
Traditionally, Nashville’s malcontents have bucked trends via lyrics, image and attitude, but Church is taking his boldest risks with timbre and texture, pulling from a sonic palate that many of his peers are too timid to touch.
And he didn’t come to party, either.
Last year, plenty of critics dismissed the rising class of male country stars as “bro-country,” tut-tutting the likes of Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line for their arena-friendly odes to beer, trucks, girls and drinking beer in trucks with girls.
And while Church’s new album is being celebrated as a rebuke of the bros’ lack of imagination, it actually manages to exceed their equally maligned production values. Church’s songs sound glossier, bulkier and way weirder.
Over the bullfrog bass of “Cold One,” he’s mourning a lost love and a missing beer. On “Like a Wrecking Ball,” the reverb on his vocals makes him sound like he’s crooning a sex jam in a haunted VFW hall. The rhythm section on “Broke Record” punches at the kidneys with a persistence that would make Waylon Jennings grin. And the swampy, synthetic rhythms of “The Joint” feel like a sustainable blueprint for hillbilly trip-hop. Really.
But the most impressive sounds on this album always seem to be coming out of Church’s throat. He’s co-written all 12 songs here, and as a vocalist, he’s never sounded more lithe, often singing with the grace of the late Keith Whitley.
He shows off the contours of his drawl best during “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young,” a stunning ballad about sprouting the gray hairs that Hank Williams and Jesus Christ didn’t live long enough to find on their heads.
Songs such as that one serve Church’s individualist image far more convincingly than the album’s meathead title track and his intermittent bad boy posturing. Being an outsider doesn’t mean you have to morph into some pseudo-heavy-metal-macho-man. Just sing like an angel and don’t be afraid to get a little weird.
Dierks Bentley has always sounded more comfortable in his Wranglers than Church has, and on his seventh major-label studio album, “Riser,” the 38-year-old seems to be cementing his reputation as country’s most charismatic centrist.
He sets the album’s tone with “Bourbon in Kentucky,” a boozy ballad that manages to emulate the tidy grandeur of U2.
“There ain’t enough bourbon in Kentucky for me to forget you,” he belts, harmonizing alongside ascendant Texas superstar Kacey Musgraves. But just before the song fades to blackout, Bentley shifts the mood with a deliciously spiteful little kiss-off: “So forget you.”
Those little emotional dissonances are what Bentley does best. On the slow roll of “Pretty Girls,” he sings about a wild night out as if he’s eulogizing it. “Drunk on a Plane” goes for laughs but comes closer to tears. “Here On Earth” chugs along with optimistic melodies while Bentley sings about his tangled faith.
So it’s amusing to hear him touting his single-mindedness on “I Hold On,” a staunch anthem about refusing change and staying true to his rusted pickup truck, his worn-down guitar, the American flag, “my faith, your love, our freedom.”
In another singer’s mouth, those lyrics would sound like a checklist of country music clichés. But in Bentley’s they convey an urgency that makes staying the course sound like a lifelong struggle. And that’s heavy, bro.