Eric Church, "The Outsiders" (EMI Nashville)
Eric Church is developing two separate and distinct personalities that seem to wrestle each other in a glorious battle royal on his fourth and best album, "The Outsiders."
There's that guy Chief, with the hat and sunglasses and the love of rock 'n' roll, whiskey, stubborn streaks and fistfights. And then there's the version of Church who wins (or loses) the girl, stirs moments of universal reverie and tickles the funny bone with program director-wooing hits that appeal to country music's bedrock fan base.
Both these guys are at their best on "The Outsiders," one-upping each other with songs that embrace the breadth and history of country music while ignoring those conventions to explore far afield. Managing this trick requires a delicate touch, and Church and producer Jay Joyce push the limits while maintaining a balance that leaves a little something for everyone.
Don't like the heavy rock riffs and leather jacket-clad message of the Black Sabbath-leaning title song? Well, there's the tear-jerker ballad "A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young."
Tired of the paint-by-numbers party songs that flood radio? His answer is "Cold One," which offers a twist on a tired theme. Need a couples song for you and your new country gal? Try "Talladega," which somehow turns auto racing into an epic love poem. "Give Me Back My Hometown" is straight up nostalgia. And if that's not your thing, there's the rock-informed "Dark Side," ''That's Damn Rock & Roll" and "The Joint" to go with your shot and beer back.
Tempo-shifting "Roller Coaster Ride" and funky country "Broke Record" use sonic interpretations of Church's lyrics to rev up things. The organ on "Like a Wrecking Ball" and the trumpet at the end of "The Joint" are delightful moments that show Church is confident that his listeners are his to command. He even tries his hand at spoken-word noir on "Devil, Devil." The album is full of little flourishes like these that aren't necessary but show a restless creativity that requires repeated listening.
"The Outsiders" is the rare album that invites debate, and asks us to take sides. In this case, pick freely. You can't lose.
Follow AP Music Writer Chris Talbott: http://twitter.com/Chris_Talbott.