Album Review – Zach Bryan’s “American Heartbreak”

Welcome ladies and gentlemen to an entirely new era in the effort to upstage the powers that be in country music, and return the control back to the artists and fans, while simultaneously returning the soul and heart back to the songs. It was a charge first taken up by the Outlaws in the 70s, reignited by Hank Williams III and independent labels like Bloodshot Records in the 90’s, championed later by Sturgill Simpson, then brought to an entirely new level by artists like Cody Jinks, Tyler Childers, and others.

But now it’s a “viral songwriter”—a new designation we’ve had to add to the lexicon—that has gone from messing around in an AirBNB recording amateur songs with his friends, to a guy that has perhaps on the precipice of becoming one of the hottest names in popular music with his new 34-song album American Heartbreak.

34 songs? Hell, why not. Stroke your chin and espouse all the conventional wisdom about music that you want, including what a boner Zach Bryan is pulling here with this hard drive dump of an album that doesn’t even include any vinyl copies, and doesn’t even seem to have a publicist or any media push behind it. Then sit back and watch as the thing racks up an insane amount of metadata through Zach Bryan’s extremely engaged fan base, and challenges for the very top spots on the charts once all those streams are counted. It’s already set the single day streaming record for a country album on both Spotify and Apple Music.

Meanwhile, if/when you see Zach Bryan out there in the wild, his fans will be singing every.single.word of every one of these 34 songs right there with him, and verbatim, along with all the other songs Zach Bryan has released over the last four years. For his voracious fans, the 34 songs of American Heartbreak were too long in coming, and still not enough. He could drop another 34-song album tomorrow and they would still be here for it. This is the Americana version of Beatlemania.

But how about the actual songs of American Heartbreak. Are they any good? Is it even worth diving into? Where in the hell does one even start? Just to ingest this thing in one sitting, you risk estranging yourself from your children, having to pony for a divorce lawyer, or flunking out of the spring semester from the time commitment it requires.

Of course there are some rushed, under-produced, poorly recorded and constructed tracks on this album that were taken out of the oven half baked. That’s just what you’re going to get from Zach Bryan. It’s actually not unusual for an artist to write and/or record 34 songs or more in the run up to an album release. It’s pretty common in fact. It’s just Zach Bryan didn’t parse anything down at the end, or cut out the things that weren’t finished. These are his children, and he couldn’t fathom parting with any of them. And so he just released them all.

But there’s also many songs here that are pretty damn excellent, whether from a songwriting, musical, or even production standpoint. Maybe you have to dig to find the ones that will appeal to you, and demonstrate some patience; that is, if you’re not wrapped up in Zach Bryan mania, and all of this stuff sounds like musical manna to you. But some more distinguishing listeners may need a Sherpa. Lucky, you happen to know one.

As for the “best” tracks on the album, of course this is an arbitrary judgement call based significantly on individual taste. But judging primarily on songwriting—since Zach Bryan is primarily a songwriter—the tracks this set of ears would put the most emphasis upon would be “Something in the Orange,” “Sun To Me,” “Billy Stay,” and “Half Grown.”

“Something in the Orange” is the song that has already set the country music world on fire. It’s currently the #3 streaming song in all of country music, and has Zach Bryan as the #1 ranked songwriter in all of country for the third straight week when its coupled with another early release from the record, “From Austin.” This is according to Billboard.

But if you’ve been sitting back, munching on a bowl of Orville Redenbacher, watching this whole Zach Bryan thing pop off, and wondering what the hell is really behind it all, the one song from American Heartbreak I would advise you consider is track #29, “Half Grown.” It really exemplifies the way Zach Bryan’s writing distinguishes itself from other contributors in how the verses all interplay with each other, how he takes a few simple ideas and phrases, and makes them evolve and fold on top of each other until he’s describing an indescribable experience of the human condition.

Despite what Zach Bryan’s critics will implore you to believe, this is not all smoke and mirrors. The way Zach Bryan has connected with his audience of mostly younger adults estranged from today’s conventional country music is by giving words to their most infernal fears, anxieties, and euphoric exhalations. Zach Bryan just knows how to express what he’s feeling in a lossless manner, and what we all feel (or have felt) in ways even the most illustrative of songwriters generally struggle to.

“Billy Stay” shows another dimension of elevated songwriting from Zach Bryan, taking on a rather overdone topic of aging and Alzheimer’s, which is such an easy avenue to tugging on heart strings. But Zach knows how to avoid all the clichés, while swelling the emotion and emphasis at the right times to emphatically sell your mind and heart on the story. At their best, Zach Bryan’s songs are explosions of feeling that are hard to not capture on the mic, no matter the setting or setup. That’s how he can arrest an audience with a video taken taken on a busted iPhone with wind in the mic, and in low light. None of that matters. The sincerity and emotional potency translates. That’s how we got here.

Even on some of Zach Bryan’s more average tracks, there is still almost always a line or two that feels damn near like parable, or perhaps Shakespearean in it’s poetic potency, making the entire song seem that much more vital. Take “The Outskirts”—a perfectly fine song, partaking in nostalgia in a well-written manner, and well complimented by a light approach to the instrumentation. It would be a fine song on its own, but the simple line “Your smile outdoes the dawn” just takes it to another level. It’s these kinds of incisive lines that some songwriters take years to discover, and that Zach seems to pick out of the air as easy as breath that has resulted in his inexplicable “viral” appeal. His fans pick up on all of these such lines. His critics miss them entirely. This is one of the many reasons for the gulf running through his appeal.

Of course, Zach Bryan is best described as a country-oriented singer/songwriter, but as a singer and songwriter above all else. But American Heartbreak also finds Zach taking a few stabs at straight up country songs. The first comes early on with “Heavy Eyes,” which is right up there with “Half Grown” as one of the best tracks on the record. Combining Zach’s writing skills with some pretty excellent takeoff country guitar, it’s hard to not fall for this track, even if you count yourself among the Zach Bryan detractors.

Another distinctly country track is “Whiskey Fever,” which is sort of Zach’s crack at writing a wild-eyed 70s country song. Piggy backing off of “Whiskey River,” it’s one of those Zach Bryan tracks whose lyrics could have used another revision or two. It’s pretty fun, but probably only good for a few listens before you move on to the more meatier tracks of the album. “If She Wants a Cowboy” is probably a bit better written and delivered, but again is done a bit tongue-in-cheek, complete with leaning on Auto-tune at the end to supposedly appeal to country radio. It’s a hoot for sure, but these later two country songs make for the comic relief of the album as opposed to the emotional anchors.

Reportedly recorded in three different primary settings—with probably some homespun last minute tracks thrown in there as well—the majority of the songs of American Heartbreak render as Heartland rock. Eddie Spear is given the lion’s share of producer credits, with Ryan Hadlock, and Louie Nice in there as well. The writing is earnest, the music is mostly rootsy, and the songs are about being lost and found all at the same time. Zach Bryan is still a young man, and knows about little more than experiencing life, and then embedding it into song.

There are multiple reasons the mere mention of Zach Bryan’s will also result in bile and spite from a small, but loud few, and one of those reasons is age discrepancy. At 26, Zach Bryan is a Millennial, just barely qualifying above Gen Z, making his way in a movement in music full of 30 and 40-somethings who first got into this stuff from Shooter, Hank3, Sturgill, or Cross Canadian Ragweed, and 50-somethings who trace it back further to Ryan Adams and Reckless Kelly. Who is this damn kid hopscotching everyone, headlining their favorite festivals, releasing 34-song albums, and not giving a shit about the presentation? And why do all of his fans look like they’re still in college?

Along with the generational gap, as has been said before, there’s nothing more injurious to an independent artist than success. First, Zach Bryan was a Tyler Childers knockoff. Now, he’s some sort of machination orchestrated by Music Row. Pop country. Forget that these two things don’t jive with each other, it also doesn’t jive with Zach Bryan’s music. It also doesn’t take into account that whomever is working at Warner is asleep at the wheel when it comes to this release. They have no idea what to do with this album either, and so they’re doing nothing.

It won’t matter though, because Zach Bryan’s fans do know what to do. American Heartbreak will still pop off, and present a new paradigm in independent country music, and in music in general, and anoint Zach Bryan as another country music revolutionary.

We can’t judge any of this in the present tense. It’s too fresh, too unusual, there are too many songs to ingest, and the moments are too emotional. Unquestionably though, discounting or casting off Zach Bryan and the phenomenon surrounding him as some some sort of illusion, something insincere, or something not destined to stick in the long-term has already proven to be folly. It is very much real and reverberative, and all that any of us can do is wait to see how this all evolves. What we do know is that it’s going to be big. And probably, very big.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8.3/10)

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