Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
Eric Church looks to take no prisoners on his big and bold - sometimes very dark - sounding fourth studio release. He makes that crystal clear on the cover where he stands flanked by his backing quintet, looking tough, menacing, ready for a rumble with arms hanging down, hiding behind sunglasses. These guys are ready to roll.
As in rock and roll, which Church et al cook up with the lead-off title track, an out-and-out rocker with Church laying down his outside the lines credentials. He spews out the words with a high level of conviction, making it clear he and his self-proclaimed band of brothers are going to do it their way or the highway. From a sonic standpoint, producer Jay Joyce had no qualms about turning up the screaming guitar playing. But he also isn't afraid to get a bit swampy and soulful on the slowed down "Like a Wrecking Ball."
Church deserves a lot of credit for stretching way beyond where he has previously tread. Church includes spoken parts twice (the Stonesy sounding "That's Damn Rock & Roll" and "Prince of Darkness," the prelude to "Devil, Devil"). Church adapts to the current country proclivity to rap in the former, although not the latter.
Church, of course, has blurred the lines between rock and country throughout his career, benefitting from the seemingly ever-expanding boundaries of what constitutes country. "Cold One," for example is a kitchen sink of everything from industrial sounding segments to rock to a fast-paced country romp. Church rocks hard on several songs ("That's Damn Rock and Roll" with a guitar lick stolen from AC/DC and the second single, the anthemic, building "Give Me Back My Hometown," on which Church intersperses softer musical palates as well while also including Edge-like chimey guitar lines in a song you could almost hear U2 perform), but he also goes for a tamer, more country vibe as well. Acoustic guitar tends to dominate the softer material ("Talladega"). You will also hear mandolin, Dobro and the non-traditional synth mando. Just don't bother looking for pedal steel.
Church sounds more confident than ever and with good reason. No matter what musical style one ascribes to the sounds generated, there is an aggressiveness to the music and delivery. Even the words ("Dark Side" where the words are far tougher than the easy going sonics and vocals). Church knowingly would never be accused of having his feet firmly planted in country (and he proves this even more so in concert where he plays far more rock than country). Maybe he's a modern day rebel in the same way that his badass forbearers like Waylon Jennings were. At least you get the sense Church is doing it his way.