Eric Church has had great success presenting himself as a modern-day outlaw, someone who operates outside of Nashville’s mainstream. This is despite the fact that he records for a major label, regularly charts on the radio, and is a mainstay on the awards show circuit.

He can sell that notion because his music, like that of compatriot Jamey Johnson, doesn’t sound like everything else on country radio. While he may sing about girls and cars, it’s seldom from the same cookie-cutter perspective of many of his colleagues…his arrangements alone show he’s aiming high. He isn’t constrained by any of the cliched conventions that too many country artists cling to…just skip to album closer, “The Joint,” if you need proof of that. He’s one of Nashville’s most intriguing artists.

He’s also proven to be a favorite among folks who say they don’t listen to country music, like Metallica, who handpicked Church to play their Orion Festival, and become a media darling to outlets like The New York Times, NPR and Spin.

He codifies his place in country music with “The Outsiders,” his latest album, out today,  and one of his most assured. Church loves singing about the temptations that face us all. His characters are always wrestling with something: whether it’s love, heartbreak, liquor or their own inner demons.

“The Outsiders”: The opening track  and first single serves as a mission statement for the album and just in case you didn’t get the idea from the first few minutes, the song then breaks down into a prog rock/metal instrumental in the middle to remind you. It will be fun for concert, but on the album, it feels a little forced. GRADE: C

“A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young”: This is a stunner of a song and this album's equivalent of "Like Jesus Does."  Church reflects on how, at 36, he’s outlived “Hank  and Jesus,” (That’s Hank Williams, for the uninitiated), despite his hell-bent, destructive ways. He attributes it to a good woman’s love. That sounds cliched until you hear the song. It’s a beautiful ballad, with Church accompanied largely only by guitar, singing in a soft, questioning voice.GRADE: A

“Cold One”:
A smooth song, with some great slide work. Church laments that a girl breaks his heart by not only snubbing him, but taking his beer. He loses two “cold ones” in the song: the girl and the suds. Fun and slinky. GRADE: A-

“Roller Coaster Ride”
: Mid-tempo ditty about being on a “roller coaster ride,” ever since his love left him. It’s a white-knuckle ride from here on out.  His laid-back vocals don’t match the interesting, topsy-turvy arrangement or lyrics, but it’s an enjoyable track to listen to. GRADE: B

“Talladega”: The summer before “the real world” turns magical in this mid-tempo tune, as Church and some of his young buddies fix up a Winnebago and head to Talladega for some racing and some girl watching. Here’s to “turning up, slowing down, and cars that go real fast.”  GRADE: B

“Broke Record”: Church is like yo-yo and his lady “keeps yanking my string,” but he can’t quite her. “I’m a broke record” that he has to keep playing. There’s some fun word play on this mid-tempo twangy tune and great swampy guitar. GRADE: B

“Like A Wrecking Ball”: Another mid-tempo track, filled with organ and guitar. The sexy tune has a slow-grind, Allman Bros. feel as he sexily declares he’s going to rock his lover like a wrecking ball…and he’s pretty convincing.  If this house is rocking, don’t bother knocking. GRADE: A-

“That’s Damn Rock & Roll”: Church is as influenced by rock as he is country, but it sometimes feels forced when he tries to rock out. He speaks the first two verses here as he lays down what his definition of rock and roll is and, guess what, it’s not about the groupies or the drugs, it’s about playing for because you absolutely have no choice because the fire inside burns too intensely not to. The sentiment is great and the combination of Church’s voice and the background vocalist during the chorus threatens to tear the roof off the song, but it’s a bit too much of a Frankenstein job to hang together: GRADE: B-

“Dark Side”:
Mid-tempo track about keeping our demons at bay. “I’ve got a wife and I’ve got a son who don’t know half the stuff I’ve done and I pray that’s the way it stays,” he sings. “And that’s why my dark side don’t ever see the light of day.” There’s so much depth in this tune and barely buried rage. The first half is great, but it takes a wrong turn when he turns it into a warning against anyone who might try to hurt his son. It’s an understandable sentiment, but it turns the song into one of seething containment into a threat. GRADE: B

“Devil, Devil (Prelude -Princess of Darkness)”:
This one goes wrong in all kinds of ways. The mainly spoken track is about the Music City and the way country music industry spits people out. It’s a diatribe against mainstream country: he calls labels “pimps.” And he wants to send this devil’s bride straight to hell. As I mention in my intro, Church would be a lot more believable if he weren’t on a major label and weren’t benefitting from the machinery he’s railing again. Once it goes from the spoken word into the song, it’s much more interesting. It’s not so much that he’s biting the hand that feeds him as it is an uninteresting tale of how the sausage is made. GRADE: C-

“Give Me Back My Hometown”
: Church does nostalgia well, as evidenced by his massive hit, “Springsteen,” and on “Talladega.”  Here, on his current single, he does it with a hint of menace as he remembers breaking up with a young love, who keeps haunting him and makes it impossible for him to enjoy his hometown any more (however, the video hints at a whole different side story that we may see played out in future videos). GRADE: B+

“The Joint”: And this is why people love Church. Given his proclivities, one would expect this to be about smoking a certain substance, but instead it’s a smoldering tale, delivered by Church in a low slung voice and with trumpets, no less, about his mama burning their place down. It’s sly and sinuous and unlike anything else you'll hear on any other album this year. GRADE: B+