Though he shares the same name and is a spitting image of the actor who portrayed the eldest son on the 90’s situational comedy Home Improvement, that is not why full-time Navy enlistee Zach Bryan is internet famous. A well-placed shoutout by Parker McCollum and a few other fortuitous bounces in 2019 took Zach Bryan from an aspiring songwriter spitballing tunes in front of a smartphone to one of the hottest performers in roots music, COVID-19 and Navy commitments notwithstanding.
From screwing around with some buddies and recording an album dedicated to his late mother called DeAnn in an AirBNB, to signing with a major label, Zach Bryan is threatening to bust through to the top tier of independent roots music. Now for the first time we get to hear the Oklahoma native stationed in Washington State with at least a semblance of professional production behind him as producer Eddie Spear known for engineering and assisting on albums from folks like Chris Stapleton, Cody Jinks, Lori McKenna, and Brent Cobb traveled to record this six song EP on Zach Bryan’s property in the same space Zach’s early 2020 homespun title Elisabeth was cut.
A couple of songs on the new release will already be familiar to those Zach Bryan devotees who’ve consumed everything he’s put on the internet. “Let You Down” was revealed via a video well over a year ago, and if we’re being honest, captures Zach’s songwriting in a more nascent stage, with lines that could have used a bit more spit and polish, and was probably smart to leave off the earlier releases. The murder ballad “Birmingham” about killing a man with a tire iron has been around for over a year too. Both songs have received about a million spins in video form.
Where Zach Bryan contributes more instrumentally to his young, but fast-rising career is in the new songs contributed to this Quiet, Heavy Dreams EP. Zach Bryan is just touched in a way where poetic recitation or interpretation of events either real life or imaginative is so natural to him, the words flow like water, and order themselves in ways that are both intuitive and inviting to the audience. His effortlessness at writing songs is the envy of all writers.
“Crooked Teeth” is a travelogue of jealousy and revenge. “November Air” feels like it could fit on his original album DeAnn about his mother, but no matter the inspiration, he makes a robust character come alive in your mind’s eye in such a short interval as only Zach Bryan can do with such ease. “Traveling Man” includes those insights into us all from how Zach compartmentalizes wisdom in a way everyone can understand. “We’re all running from the things inside…” he sings, conveying something we all know deep down, but often need the right song to remind us of.
The addition of a more trained ear in Eddie Spear adds smarts and layering to Zach Bryan’s songs, especially in harmonies and background choruses, while still respecting his homespun, raw-edged songwriter aspect that has made Zach so resonant and appealing to so many. It must be a real healthy balance that is struck with an artist like Zach, who if faced with the wrong production approach, could have everything cool about him suffocated out quite quickly.
But the fair question to ask with not just this EP (which fundamentally only includes four new songs), but with any mid-career EP, is what is this contributing to Zach Bryan’s career? EPs often get overlooked in discographies as half efforts and repositories for B-sides and “other” material, fair or otherwise, with some exceptions of course.
Zach Bryan is at the level where he could join artists like Cody Jinks, Tyler Childers, and Colter Wall at the tops of commercial success for non-radio artists. But an EP is unlikely to have the gusto to shepherd Zach into the greater country music consciousness, while the nature of the material and recordings isn’t seismically different to where it will open new audiences for him compared to his previous stuff. We also have another possible EP swirling out there for Zach from the stuff he worked on with Dave Cobb at Studio ‘A’ in Nashville.
But of course, these are all extraneous concerns to the music found on the Quiet, Heavy Dreams EP, which is quite good. Zach Bryan himself says, “I have some out-there songs, story songs. They resonate with me personally but when I’m singing them and hearing them it feels like I’m dreaming. Imagining the things for myself, and how the people in those story’s all tie together. They all have something to say and someone to say it too. I wanted to put all of these very imagery-driven songs together. The title track, ‘Quiet, Heavy Dreams’ is about a man (or woman’s) journey of trying to be or become who they truly want to be.”
Where a mid career EP can work is when the songs all work well together, and a similar outcome may not be true when the same songs are clumped into a regular LP. Though it takes this explanation from Zach Bryan himself to help one navigate to this conclusion since most all of his songs are so imagery-driven, it’s a fair enough explanation for the reasoning behind the EP.
Even still, it’s also fair to ask whether waiting for a full album wouldn’t have been the more prudent move. But as Zach Bryan has proved many times throughout his curious and incredible career so far, there is no conventional wisdom behind what’s happening here. He’s being spirited to the front of the class off the mere strength of his songs as we wish would be the fate of all of our favorite songwriters. And there’s no telling where this all leads.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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