For all of his doth-protest-too-much insistence on how he’s the only “outlaw” left in Nashville and how his music is infinitely more authentic and “country” than that of any of his peers, it’s nearly impossible to get on board with Eric Church. His public persona comes across as impossibly arrogant and, given the actual quality of his recorded output to date, lacking in even a modicum of self-awareness. The title track and “Lightning” from 2006’s Sinners Like Me and “Smoke a Little Smoke” from 2009’s Carolina might be terrific songs on their own merits, but they don’t position Church as the second coming of Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard that he’d like you to believe he is.
Fortunately for Church, his third album, Chief, goes a long way toward establishing him as an artist worth taking seriously in his own right. For as many times as he’s tried to invoke the names of Jennings and Johnny Cash, Church’s album doesn’t scan as traditional country in any meaningful way, but its production shows some genuine creativity and spark, and Church’s songwriting is far sharper and more consistent than ever before. In what has been a truly dreadful year for country music, Chief is a surprise standout.
What made “Smoke a Little Smoke” a great single was its unconventional rhythm section, and Church and producer Jay Joyce take similar—and similarly effective—risks over the course of Chief. Opener “Creepin’” slinks and slithers along a rhythm arrangement that owes more to vintage funk than traditional country, while Church’s staccato vocal delivery on “Keep On” gives that standout track real energy and swagger. Historically, country music has either pushed percussion sections far into the background or has omitted them altogether, but “Hungover and Hard Up” emphasizes its sturdy drum line, giving a strong foundation that complements Church’s narrative about the aftermath of a particularly messy, unexpected breakup. If his songs trade in familiar country tropes, he demonstrates a real sense of ambition in the arrangements and production of those songs.
Lead single “Homeboy” is one of the few exceptions in that regard. The unexpected, clever use of a harp overlay on the song’s massive electric guitar riffs and thundering percussion isn’t enough to excuse its ugly, reductive point of view. Pitched as a tough-love sermon from an older brother, “Homeboy” finds Church extolling the values of one lifestyle full of ice-cold beer and unconditional love while deploring a lifestyle of selfishness and criminal activity. If you can already guess which one of those lifestyles involves “gold on your teeth,” a “hip-hop hat” (whatever the hell that means), and, yes, “pants on the ground,” then you probably aren’t going to respond favorably to Church’s fearmongering, vaguely racist screed. The single sounds pretty fantastic, but its content lays bare many of the ugly stereotypes about country music and its audience.
The remainder of the album isn’t nearly so problematic. “Hungover and Hard Up” is especially well written, with a robust melody and several witty turns of phrase that betray a likable self-deprecating streak. “Over When It’s Over” is another highlight, with backing vocals by should’ve-been-star Joanna Cotten and a smart structure that really maximizes the impact of some lyrical repetitions. If Church seems oblivious to the irony of singing about needing “some long-haired hippie prophet/Preaching from the Book of Johnny Cash/A sheep among the wolves, standing tall/We need a country music Jesus to come and save us all” on “Country Music Jesus” and then turning right around and writing a song that pays homage to the Boss in both form and content, at least the songs themselves are constructed well and have an actual voice.
Still, it’s that lack of insight that keeps Chief from being a truly exceptional album. It just doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense to champion traditional country music while singing over hard-rock arrangements and occasionally Auto-Tuned vocal tracks. That’s not to say he doesn’t do a lot of things, particularly with his songwriting and with some risky production choices, awfully well here. Chief doesn’t make him a country music Jesus, but it does back up a good deal of his braggadocio.