This new Zach Bryan album is a confounding mess. It needed an editor, and about 5 or 6 of the songs should have ended up on the cutting house floor. Zach’s voice sounds super weak and worn out from the road at times, and producing his own sessions resulted in sort of an unnecessary self-own. Now on his fourth official “studio” album, some of the melodies feel recycled, and some of the writing feels forced. And despite being one of the most poplar artists in all of country music, he played right into the hands of his staunchest critics with this one.
…and as Zach Bryan has proven time and time again, none of this matters. Critics and detractors can grouse all they want, and point to the same measures and gradients that are brought to bear to deduce the reception and success for most any other artist or band. But those rules don’t apply to Zach Bryan. Or perhaps they still do to some extent. But when Zach Bryan delivers one of the many soul-stirring, bone-chilling lines that he’s famous for, it’s like a panacea for everything else.
Zach Bryan deftly and poignantly encapsulates the sincerest feelings of people that they can’t begin to express themselves. When they listen to his songs, it’s like staring straight into their very souls. To them, the music of Zach Bryan is medicine, wisdom, and grace. Everything else is superfulous. There is Zach Bryan’s music, and then there is everyone else’s. This self-titled album will soundtrack their lives for the next 12-16 months, and forever set the contours to this era of their lives.
The first album that Zach Bryan has written and produced all by himself starts off with a poem, and there’s perhaps never been a better way to start an album. Bryan will be the first to tell you that he’s no professional musician. It all begins with the words. And sometimes, it ends with them. But the words are enough when they’re Zach Bryan’s. “Fear and Friday’s (Poem)” shoots a chill down the spine with its incisive language and determined pentameter. It’s moments like these that have put Zach Bryan where he is.
But starting with the second song on the album “Overtime,” the trained ear senses the significant flaw in Zach’s decision to produce this album by himself. Though not always, too often on the album Zach Bryan’s voice feels tired and uninspired, however inspiring the words might be. Nobody would ever accuse Bryan of being the best of singers. When he collaborates with great singers like Sierra Ferrell or The War & Treaty on this album, this becomes even more evident.
But even comparing the underlying effort and passion in Zach’s voice with the moments of his last album American Heartbreak, or the EP Summetimes Blues, it’s clear that Zach Bryan is not getting out of himself what someone else behind the control board might by pushing Zach and compelling him the not settle for an okay take, and reminding him this is all being captured for posterity.
Zach Bryan’s pickup band of old friends and feral players has really come into their own over the last year or two, if only from being deftly seasoned from the road. Guys like J.R. Carroll and Read Connolly have become stars all unto themselves. But jumping into the studio with little practice to flesh out these songs exposes some of the amateurism within the ranks.
Zach Bryan says that he made the band run a mile in 90 degree weather before recording “Fear and Friday’s” so they would all be sweaty. You can definitely tell from the result, which sounds out of sync and expended. “Smaller Acts” is nothing more than a voice memo recorded in a field, and that’s exactly what it sounds like. On a proper studio album, maybe this scratch track would seem endearing. On this album, it just lends to the sloppiness.
“Smaller Acts” is also an incredible song. It’s an excellent character study of a Mercury Lounge bar fly who breaks all the guy’s hearts every night, and is true to herself at every turn. The duet with The War and Treaty called “Hey Driver” is one incredible turn of phrase after another. The line, “Daddy always told me never make a home on the road while your lady’s sneaking out, and the kids are growing old,” comes across like Emerson in this context.
Zach’s duet with Sierra Ferrell called “Holy Roller” is a great lesson that to be a great poet, you don’t just have to be good with words, but good with timing. The duet with Kacey Musgraves “I Remember Everything” finds one of the album’s most vulnerable and emotional moments, but again is graced with a lazy-sounding performance from Zach, taking away from an otherwise standout track that is sure to get extra attention.
Again, all of these gripes are a requisite for pointy-nosed critics to point out. Even the cover art sucks and the mastering seems off, with the sound levels set at different intervals between songs. But it probably still doesn’t matter. However, it would have been reassuring to see Zach evolving and purifying his approach over time, however slow and careful. Regressing back to bad production lends to the worry that we’re going in the wrong direction.
But if they would have let Pete Seeger take his hatchet to the electrical wires running to the stage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when Dylan went electric, who knows where American music would sound like today. Gatekeepers and critics are irrelevant when it comes to Zach Bryan. That’s not to compare Zach Bryan to Bob Dylan. But when you stand in the middle of the crowd during a Zach Bryan concert and see the reaction, it’s hard to not compare it to the Beatles.
Zach Bryan initially said this album would be eleven songs, and it was a new era of quality over quantity in his career. Zach Bryan lied on both counts. It’s likely some of the more subpar songs that saddle this album down that were selected out, and then re-added last minute. Zach also said at one point that he made the album for himself and himself only. Later he amended this to say, “I didn’t make this album to appease people who will never be happy anyways, I made it for my people.”
And make no mistake about it, Zach Bryan’s people will be very, very happy. And in the end, nothing else may matter. Because this is Zach Bryan, and it’s a phenomenon that defies convention.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7/10)
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