It’s perhaps a little inappropriate to consider the songwriter behind one of the year’s longest-running #1 singles at country radio (Keith Urban’s “Making Memories Of Us”) an “outsider” in the country music game, but its potentially misleading title is the lone misstep on Rodney Crowell’s The Outsider, the artist’s third straight album in a late-career renaissance that has arguably surpassed the phenomenal quality of his first critical and commercial peak in the late 1980s. The Houston Kid and its 2003 follow-up Fate’s Right Hand found Crowell moving in far more introspective directions, respectively chronicling his childhood in Texas and his move into middle-age, and The Outsider continues in what has been an uncommonly productive vein. A key difference, then, and one that elevates The Outsider above such excellent work, is that this album boasts a far more lively, even confrontational tone.
Backed by some of the hardest rockers he could find in Nashville (touring guitarist Will Kimbrough is given ample room to show off), Crowell has never sounded so fired up, tackling matters of sprawling corporate arrogance (on “The Obscenity Prayer”), political apathy (“Don’t Get Me Started” and “Ignorance Is The Enemy”), and interpersonal impotence (“Say You Love Me”) with equal parts insight, vitriol, and wit. And, lest anyone forget that he’s long been one of the reasons that country music can boast intelligence as one of its many virtues, Crowell delivers the album’s thesis statement on a song entitled, “Dancing Circles Around the Sun (Epictetus Speaks),” inspired by his readings of a Roman philosopher.
Classical allusions notwithstanding, there’s not a trace of pretense in Crowell’s writing, and few of the genre’s current A-list stars could hope to match his skill. What makes The Outsider so disarmingly good is that, with the harder edges of its sound, it’s a perfect fit with current mainstream country offerings—until one pays attention to the lyrics, that is, and then it’s clear that Crowell’s operating on a completely different level. That The Outsider is every bit as invigorating, relevant an album as great mainstream offerings from Brad Paisley, Miranda Lambert, and Dwight Yoakam and alt-leaning albums from Son Volt and Ryan Adams & The Cardinals keeps Crowell in some awfully fine company.