What The Hell Is Going On In Zac Brown Band’s “The Owl”?

Say no to drugs boys and girls!

I can’t even. It’s like Zac Brown witnessed The Band Perry epicly crater their once high-flying mainstream country career by metaphorically taking a swan dive off the high board into the deep end of an empty Olympic-sized swimming pool and said, “Hey, if you think that’s something, hold my beer and watch this!” This new Zac Brown Band record is so bad, the label BMG appears to have pulled any and all promo behind it. The press received no preview copies, or pitches on features for the release. The lead single from the record called “Someone I Used To Know” flunked out of the country radio charts at #34. In short, with his new record, The Zac Brown Band appears to have just offed their mainstream career.

The Zac Brown Band’s sixth official full-length studio release entitled The Owl has just as many producers as it does tracks. That would be eleven. One of the producers is Max Martin, a.k.a the Swede who Svengalied Taylor Swift into going full blown pop, and who is personally responsible for the wholesale reprehensible direction of popular music in the last 10 to 15 years. Another one of the producers is simply named “Poo Bear,” and is primarily known for working with Justin Bieber. Can’t say I’ve heard what the Biebs has been up to lately, but whatever it is, I can guarantee you it blows this out of the water, because it at least offers some sort of cohesive direction.

In 2013, Zac Brown slammed Luke Bryan’s song “That’s My Kind of Night” as “…one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard. I see it being commercially successful, in what is called country music these days … [but] country fans and country listeners deserve to have something better than that, a song that really has something to say, something that makes you feel something. Good music makes you feel something. When songs make me wanna throw up, it makes me ashamed to even be in the same genre as those songs.”

And yet, now we get this. Make no mistake, the 2013 knitted beanie version of Zac Brown would lay a vicious beat down on whatever the top-hatted Zac Brown has become today. The Zac Brown of 2019 makes Luke Bryan sound like Mark Chesnutt. “Gucci bag, stacks on stacks, diamonds fill up the champagne glass…” Zac Brown white boy raps in the terrible song “God Given” on this new record. “Veyron whip, G5 high, you have class that they just can’t buy.” You have to download a douchebag translator app from the Google Store just to understand what the hell this guy is saying.

Remember the shock some listeners felt when they cued up Zac Brown Band’s 2015 album Jekyll+Hyde and heard the first song “Beautiful Drug”? Now envision an entire record like that, but one where “Beautiful Drug” would be one of the best from the set. That’s The Owl ladies and gentlemen.

A busy, disjointed, manic, mutt of a mono-genre effort with absolutely no compass, direction, or general purpose, The Owl is the vomiting out of any and all popular music influences mashed together like peanut butter and poodle shit. Forget all the high talk of how combining genre can be a gateway to vibrant creativity and musical evolution through the blending of influences and art forms. This record is like putting gummy bears in a lasagna. Both may be good, but they just don’t belong together in these combinations. It’s just flat out wrong.

In an attempt to be all things to all people, Zac Brown may have found the moment and place on the space time continuum where you don’t mean anything to anybody. It’s not that the aformentioned “God Given,” or other pseudo-EDM tracks on The Owl like “Need This,” “OMW,” or “Warrior” don’t work as songs in that thumpy club realm. But why are EDM fans going to sup at the trough of some washed-up country guy when there’s way better choices in that space? I appreciate that Zac Brown has such a passion for electronic music that he’s willing to train wreck his entire career to pursue it, but at some point you have to realize who you are in this world, and Zac Brown is a flubby 40-something whose biggest hit is called “Chicken Fried.” You’re not gonna steal fans from Steve Aoki.

Granted, there are a couple of moments on this record that you could characterize as “country,” at least kind of. Despite the beat box opening and feigned funkiness of the intro, “Me and the Boys in the Band” would make a mildly-decent country music album cut if the production suite didn’t sound like it was run through a diarrhea filter. Still, compared to the rest of the album, there’s actually fiddle, and humans playing instruments. In this desert of electronic production, it’s like an oasis of vesseled virgins and fruity water. Even though “Shoofly Pie” might send the prudes running because it’s a metaphor for the female sex organ, unlike most all the others songs on this record, it works as a cohesive statement, however poorly conceived.

As has been pointed out before, it’s a crying shame the direction this band has taken because the personnel behind Zac Brown is a top notch troupe of musicians and singers, and in a couple of instances on this record, you get little glimmers of this. But it’s beyond time to let the other members of this band completely off the hook. They should have sat Zac down a long time ago for an intervention, if not in 2016 when he got busted in a hotel room with hookers and blow, then when he decided to go in this terrible EDM direction that he first tried as a few tracks with the band, then tried to segregate in his short-lived Sir Rosevelt side project. Now Zac’s apparently decided screw it all, basically fully integrating his weird EDM obsession into the Zac Brown Band experience, forcing these fine musicians to stare at their shoes most of the time as some asshole behind a laptop pushes play on a pre-recorded backing track for Zac Brown to rap over.

In so much of this record, extremely strange production decisions dog what otherwise might be decent songs. Take “Already On Fire.” The song is just fine until some weird ass Zoorg-sounding beast appears in the second half like a level boss on a 16-bit Nintendo game. It’s the most WTF experience ever scripted into anything that ever resembled a “country” song. At least it’s potent for some inadvertent comedy, which The Owl is ripe for.

Another problem for this record is very often the lyrics are completely throwaway, like Brown and his producers got so excited about some sonic direction, and forgot that lyrics are an important way listeners connect with songs in country, pop, or even EDM. Even when they try to be prophetic, they just come across as pithy. Zac Brown’s duet with Brandi Carlile called “Finish What We Started” tries to sound like some deep love song, but fails to find any connection, like it’s the moment in the record they needed a love song, but didn’t really have the inspiration to write one.

It isn’t until the very last song on the album, “Leaving Love Behind,” where you find anything of significant value. The song still has six songwriters (including Phil and Tim Hansroth of Brandi Carlile’s band), so it’s hard to determine just how personal you should take it. But it appears to be about Zac Brown’s divorce, and is sung very well by Zac, with his backing band adding the stirring harmonies we know they’re capable of. But despite the quality of the song, it almost makes you more angry and confused by what precedes it on this record. It proves what Zac Brown is still capable of.

If Zac Brown has no more passion for performing country and Southern rock, we can’t fault him for that. What we can fault him for is sullying the Zac Brown Band name with this mess, and the country market by proxy. The Owl is, and should have been another Sir Rosevelt project. But after that effort flopped, Brown felt like he needed to marry it with the name people recognized, and now he’s infected that as well.

In October of 2013, before Sam Hunt, and before Zac Brown started pursuing his EDM direction in earnest, Jerrod Niemann released a song called “Drink To That All Night.” It was the first popular EDM country song, and a huge hit for Niemann. It also destroyed his career. The parent record flopped, and we have barely heard from him since. Sam Hunt has also done a disappearing act after hitting it big with the EDM country style. And as we know, it demolished the reputation of The Band Perry.

It’s not that the blending of genres should always be discouraged, or even that country music shouldn’t evolve to some degree over time. But as Zac Brown has just underscored and validated yet again with The Owl, there is a value in trying to define genre borders at least to some extent, and the detritus-filled slag pit that results in trying to combine country, EDM, and whatever else should be strongly discouraged.

Two Guns DOWN!

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