It’s been an entire year since Zach Bryan made his major label debut with American Heartbreak. To say the album was a success would be an absolute understatement. It debuted at #5 on Billboard’s US Top 200 chart, selling over 702,000 units as of Oct. 2022.
Since American Heartbreak’s release and success, Bryan has been an absolute powerhouse, dominating the country landscape and selling out shows worldwide. However, it’s very likely that he wouldn’t have reached superstar status without the success of this record.
The question that remains is: “Why did American Heartbreak capture the hearts of so many listeners?”
Simply put, Zach Bryan’s music feels authentic and tells impactful stories. When you look around the mainstream country landscape and at Bryan’s contemporaries, you’d be hard-pressed to see a lot of depth. However, he packs American Heartbreak full of meaningful tracks grappling with themes of love, loss, leaving and legacy throughout.
American Heartbreak evidently marked a key turning point in Bryan’s discography. His first two independently released albums, DeAnn and Elisabeth, were much more despondent. In general, Bryan was known primarily for his self-critical, “sadboy” songs with small instances of levity strewn about the two aforementioned records. With American Heartbreak, he seemed to strike the perfect balance of tone throughout the album’s two-hour runtime.
Bryan chalks the album full of different styles and moods throughout. He seamlessly transitions from rocking, Springsteen-esque tracks such as Sober Side of Sorry and Younger Years to heartfelt love songs such as The Good I’ll Do and Sun to Me to self-critical, reflective tracks such as Morning Time and Half Grown.
The ups and downs of American Heartbreak are what evidently connected with so many people. Like many great country albums before it, American Heartbreak is relatable. Many younger listeners connect to Bryan’s self-critical, raw approach to storytelling and songwriting. He doesn’t hold back here at all, laying into himself, his upbringing and his past loves while simultaneously keeping a glimmer of hope in the darkest of times. American Heartbreak does exactly what the title suggests, it captures the experience of youth (and heartbreak) in America. All of the angst, impulsivity, emotion and pain are captured beautifully here.
His commitment to writing everything independently also adds to the reliability of every song he sings; Bryan solo wrote 33 out of the 34 songs present on the record. The only song not being written independently is his cover of Johnny Cash’s You Are My Sunshine.
Coming in at an aforementioned 34 songs, the record is an absolute behemoth. With an album this incredibly long, you would expect there to be a lot of filler and overall duds. However, Bryan truly did the unthinkable and released a two-hour album that’s equally captivating as it is cohesive.
Among these 34 songs, American Heartbreak includes Bryan’s biggest hit to date, the Grammy-nominated, Something in the Orange. The track hardly needs an introduction, essentially forcing Bryan to be played on major country radio stations.
Something in the Orange’s success simply cannot be understated. Though Bryan had viral hits such as Heading South, Condemned and God Speed, it was Something in the Orange that finally pushed him into the mainstream. The track would eventually be certified platinum on Oct. 19, 2022. It was also Bryan’s first number-one on the Billboard Country chart, peaking at 10 all-genre.
Upon many re-listens, one thing that stands out is Bryan’s ability to write from a multitude of different perspectives. It’s an ability that few can do well, but he absolutely thrives switching between different characters and POVs. Throughout the record, Bryan is able to craft compelling narratives about a wife struggling with her husband’s battle with Alzheimer’s (Billy Stay), a rowdy man being shipped off to war for his crimes (Whiskey Fever) and the son of a cowboy struggling with living in his father’s shadow (Open the Gate).
A sleeper hit off of the album has to be the 31st track, ’68 Fastback. It’s clear that Bryan is also a big fan of the track, playing it at many of his concerts. The song once again shows his ability to write powerful, metaphorical tracks that are worth a re-listen. The entire song is built around the metaphor that Bryan, himself, is the ‘68 Fastback; a broken-down car ruined by his previous lover. It is the use of metaphors like this that make Bryan stand head and shoulders above his peers lyrically.
Looking back on American Heartbreak, it simply felt like an experience to listen to and watch grow. Its success catapulted Bryan into the mainstream, forcing the mainstream to acknowledge his success and celebrate his approach to writing. The record feels like a once-in-a-lifetime album and listening experience overall, feeling more like a coming-of-age film rather than an actual music album. Conceptually, a 34-track, two-hour record should not work as well as American Heartbreak works. Bryan takes the listener on a journey full of love, loss and hope, capturing the American experience beautifully.