Like any proper country singer — even a rock & roll, hip-hop-rapping bad boy such as himself — Eric Church relishes a good pun. On his rollicking fourth studio album, the 36-year-old (who writes his own songs) delivers wordplay with extra punch: Mama doesn’t light a doobie in ”The Joint,” she torches Daddy’s favorite roadhouse. The real twist? It all unfolds over anti-honky-tonk music — a pulsing, dublike track that twang-centric indie barons Jim James or Jeff Tweedy would trade their left sampler knobs to have dreamed up.
More importantly, though, The Outsiders — the still-rising star’s most brazen, brilliant disc yet, and the first great album of this year — challenges country’s chart-dominating pickup polishers, drawing on riff-wagging rock and early Beastie Boys-style beats. That’s lots of swagger to stuff into a pair of Levi’s, but Church does it all in the title track alone, a multipart monster that refines woolly classics like ”Free Bird” and ”Stairway to Heaven” down to about four minutes of crashing bliss. He also, on the defiantly pretty ”Dark Side,” threatens ”ugly mugs dealing drugs” with his big bullets, as if the vigilante spirit weren’t already proudly advertised in America. But mostly he surprises, whether rapping in ”That’s Damn Rock & Roll” or constructing ”Roller Coaster Ride” like its name, driving to a chorus so suddenly airy you can feel your stomach drop. As with all of The Outsiders‘ thrills, it’s both thumpingly obvious and exquisitely executed. A