Not so much an improvement as it is a lateral side-step of the modest charms of his 2006 debut, Sinners Like Me, Eric Church’s Carolina often comes across as a strident stab at the mainstream commercial acceptance that has thus far eluded the singer-songwriter. While Sinners showed occasional flourishes of a truly distinctive songwriting voice, the songs Church has written and co-written here fall into many of the same traps that have left mainstream country feeling so soulless and anonymous lately. Both “Where She Told Me to Go” and opener “Ain’t Killed Me Yet” hinge on turns of phrase that simply aren’t clever or memorable enough to function as viable hooks, while single “Love Your Love the Most” is yet another one of Music Row’s interminable series of songs that substitute lists of common references—among the things Church loves are sleeping in on Saturdays, college football games, good barbeque, NASCAR, George Strait, and Jack Daniels mixed with Coke—in lieu of actual substantive lyrics.
I’ll begrudgingly concede Church some credit for name-checking William Faulkner, which reflects a refreshing degree of literacy that’s been absent from the genre for entirely too long, but even that’s still just an empty reference that has no greater bearing on the context of an otherwise inert song. And that’s a significant problem for a record on which Church boasts, on album-closing ballad “Those I’ve Loved,” that “it was never about trying to be some big star/For me it’s always been about these songs.” It’s a noble sentiment, sure, but his songwriting simply isn’t as sharp here as it was on, to pick the best example, the title track from his debut.
On “Lotta Boot Left to Fill,” Church attempts to call out the legion of interchangeable frat boys who have filled the genre’s B- and C-list rosters over the last couple of years; he specifically and quite rightly takes issue with Jason Aldean’s invoking the name of Johnny Cash. But the song comes across as smug and, frankly, unearned—especially since this album’s first two singles have failed to catch fire at country radio and his biggest hit to date peaked at #14. Church doesn’t have the commercial clout to take digs about finding anyone else’s albums in the bargain bins.
While Church may intermittently show greater artistic clout than the likes of Aldean, Jason Michael Carroll, Luke Bryan, and Jake Owen, Carolina apes the style of those acts in its production and posturing. Jay Joyce emphasizes loud electric guitars and heavy percussion lines throughout the record, and Church’s fine but workmanlike vocals are often smothered in the mix. Structurally, this conflict between production and performance makes the would-be tough-guy persona he attempts to adopt on at least half of the songs ring false.
When the production is scaled back, the record works better. There’s an easy, midtempo groove to “Longer Gone” and an interesting rhythm track to “Smoke a Little Smoke” that actually reinforce the tones of those songs, and Church displays some distinctive vocal phrasing on the title track. Unfortunately, the bulk of the record takes the opposite approach, with bombastic arrangements and dumbed-down, pandering lyrics that are too easy and too desperate for mainstream approval.