Two things that true country and true hip-hop have in common is how they’re music of the people, and so authenticity and heart matters. You want to believe whomever is performing for you. You don’t want some dude named Clarence who went to a private school pretending he’s a gangster. You don’t have to be out there riding the range and herding cattle like Colter Wall to sing country, but you do want to know there’s conviction from the person who is singing. It’s essential to the magic of the music.
With Zac Brown, it’s just hard to know where his heart truly is anymore, or where it ever was. After initially shocking many of us when he led the Zac Brown Band album Jekyll + Hyde from 2015 off with the heavily EDM-influenced track “Beautiful Drug,” he would go on to start an EDM side project with Niko Moon and Ben Simonetti called Sir Rosevelt. Along with being caught with hookers and blow in a Florida Four Seasons hotel, it appeared that the good ol’ country boy from Georgia known for his Southern-fried soulful radio-friendly country rock had lost his passion for roots music entirely, and was off into the world of synth pulses, bass drops, and designer drugs.
When Sir Rosvelt flopped, and there was a minor revolt within the Zac Brown Band fan base, the band released 2017’s Welcome Home as a return to their roots. That’s right, this new album isn’t the first time they’ve pulled this stunt. Welcome Home was fine, and you couldn’t help but root for Zac Brown returning to the style of music you knew him for. But was there conviction behind the effort, or was he just giving the fans what they wanted, while his heart had moved on to the more enticing world of club music?
It turned out to be the latter, as Zac Brown Fans were once again sent on a roller coaster when he released 2019’s The Owl, filled with bad EDM and worse white boy rapping about Gucci bags an Veyron whips (whatever they are), and shortly thereafter Zac did himself even one worse with a solo project called The Controversy that went even further down a hype music rabbit hole. Both of these projects were proceeded by Zac Brown professing how he couldn’t be tied down by the old, stuffy conventions of genre. He was too creative for that. After all, he gave us Welcome Home, and the singles flopped, and the sales lagged. It was all our fault for not understanding his brilliance and artistry.
And of course, just like Sir Rosevelt, The Owl flopped even worse than Welcome Home, and The Controversy became almost like a curiosity piece of modern music. Even the mainstream country outlets that normally wave their pom-poms for every piece of dreck processed on the Music Row conveyor belt were completely weirded out.
So here Zac Brown goes again, making The Comeback to his roots. You know, just like he did on Welcome Home. At this point, you have every right to be sporting a neck brace and calling up a shady ambulance-chasing lawyer from the whiplash Zac Brown has given you. It’s gotten to the point of parody. How are you supposed to hit the reset button with this guy a second time, especially after he gave us all a talking to about how we we’re selfish morons for believing in genre when he released The Owl? How are you supposed to believe there is any heart or conviction behind this music?
But I have to say, shoving all the Gucci-labeled baggage, the hookers, the cocaine, the synth pulses and everything else that comes with merely mentioning Zac Brown’s name aside and just judging it for what it is, The Comeback isn’t half bad.
If you go to a party and someone’s playing Florida Georgia Line, you politely find the exit, or you head to the cooler and start slamming adult beverages to numb yourself. But with this? Eh, whatever. It’s fine, inoffensive, Southern-fried soulful radio-friendly country rock. In short, it’s a Zac Brown Band record. It’s a very Zac Brown Band record in fact, almost strikingly so. Not great, not terrible. Good for the mainstream, though independent country fans will probably be nonplussed. But objectively, it’s okay.
The Comeback sees big contributions from songwriters Wyatt Beasley Durrette III, Ben Simonetti, Jonathan Singleton, and a few other names thrown in there as well. There’s a couple of songs you could see doing well on the radio, like the fairly inspired “Us Against the World” and “Out in the Middle,” a pretty down home roosty and silly country song in “Fun Having Fun,” a heartfelt moment in “Love and Sunsets,” and even a pretty great 7-minute epic with Marcus King called “Stubborn Pride” that they luckily didn’t cut the extended solo on the end from.
Also, this isn’t just Zac Brown with a laptop like The Owl was. This album is the Zac Brown Band, and utilizes the cast of world-class musicians he has behind him to its benefit. If Zac Brown hadn’t taken this band down the primrose path of EDM and whatever else, and gone from Uncaged, to Welcome Home, to now this, we probably would be regarding them in a completely different light at the moment, and how most of us considered them from the beginning. Aside from some of the lame “toes in the sand” beach songs (there’s another on this album called “Lost On Me”), and the rather shallow “Chicken Fried,” they’ve been a brighter spot in the mainstream, and return to that form here.
But just like most any mainstream album, most of the songs on The Comeback just don’t veer off the script enough to feel too incredibly compelling or original. Actually Zac Brown at one point said, “All the songs on here can have like—be a sister to other songs in our catalog that people know—that they know well.” Of course few if anyone would endorse whatever Zac was off into a couple of years ago. But you can’t blame them for going back to what worked in the past.
And still, it all just makes you wonder, what is Zac Brown’s calculus here? Is the Zac Brown Band back to making Zac Brown Band music for good? Was the pressure on touring purses from fleeing fans just too much to keep experimenting with other styles of music Zac Brown will never make it big in no matter how much he may desire to? Or is this just another smoke screen setting us up for the inevitable screwball coming from Zac in 18 months? Where is his conviction? Hell, if EDM is really what he wants to do, maybe he should do it. That’s better than making music than no heart, no matter how it’s received.
We’ll just have to see. But The Comeback is where the Zac Brown Band is for now, which is also where they started, and probably where they always should have been, and where they always should be. It may not work for you, but it works for them, because it’s who they are, as opposed to who they want to be.
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