After months of speculation, tweets, retractions and false release dates, Zach Bryan has finally released his highly-anticipated follow-up to 2022’s American Heartbreak. Coming only a year after the self-titled and independently produced record, Zach Bryan marks the fourth full-length album from the Something in the Orange singer and his second major label album with Warner.
Zach Bryan ultimately feels like a unique blend of the low-fi nature of his independently released records, DeAnn and Elisabeth and the professionally produced, heartland sound of his most recent releases. Tracks such as Smaller Acts and Summertime’s Close feel as if they’re ripped straight from DeAnn while El Dorado and Fear and Friday’s could easily be placed on his most recent EP, Summertime Blues.
It can be argued that this record is hardly country at all, existing in a unique space between the folk, rock, country and singer/songwriter. However, there is no need to cage Bryan in any singular genre. His ability to traverse and ultimately rise above genre conventions is one of the many reasons why he stands out in today’s country music scene.
Though I wouldn’t directly compare him to the legendary Bruce Springsteen, it’s hard to ignore the influence and ultimate parallel that Bryan’s writing style has in comparison. The rugged, unabashedly American feel of this record feels extremely similar to Springsteen’s Nebraska. This is due largely to the themes of travel, loss, love and legacy present on the album.
An excellent example of this is the opening song, Overtime. The song literally begins with the opening notes of The Star Spangled Banner played on an overdriven electric guitar before being taken over by a saxophone (see the Springsteen comparison?). This track is a rockin’ one that sets the tone of this wholly American album while still keeping the essential themes of being self-critical, introspective and ultimately a bit arrogant that are present on all of his records.
The early standouts from the record take on two completely separate sonic styles and once again reflect how Bryan is blending the low-fi style of his early albums with the full production found in his Warner-produced records. These two are El Dorado and Summertime’s Close.
El Dorado, sonically, is the standout on the record. The driving electric guitar provides an excellent sense of movement, creating an almost chugging effect that pairs beautifully with the theme of travel and loss expressed in the lyrics. The rocking production ultimately serves as a bit of a juxtaposition to the lyrics, however. Throughout the song, it can be inferred that he is reconciling with the loss of a former Marine. El Dorado is ultimately a brutal song that has him grappling with the loss and reminiscing about memories made before the unfortunate suicide by the Marine which can be inferred by the line, “There’s a note in the glove box in your drive.” Again, this is a testament to how Bryan can delicately tell tragic stories that ultimately connect to so many of his listeners.
The heart-wrenching Summertime’s Close is arguably one of Bryan’s best songs to date lyrically. Feeling very DeAnn-esque, the song’s ultimate message is a bit unclear. However, it is unclear in the best possible way. One interpretation can be recounting the loss of a lover to a disease. However, knowing Bryan and his story, it’s very possible that this song is another love letter to his late mother. The song never explicitly shows its hand in terms of whether it’s ultimately about a past love or DeAnn herself. However, that’s the beauty of the song: it can be interpreted in a variety of ways. The very sparse production, only featuring an acoustic guitar and Bryan’s patented harmonica, lets the listener fully immerse themselves in his poetry.
The closing verse is nothing short of a tear-jerker; Bryan’s ability to tell so much with so little in the line, “And tonight I’m dancin’ for two,” is another testament to how effective of a lyricist he is.
“And the law don’t ever come back here and I
Reckon they don’t try
I just put some beer on ice
And tonight I’m dancin’ for two”
Returning to Zach Bryan is a poem. However, instead of closing the album like This Road I Know did on American Heartbreak, Fear and Friday’s (Poem) opens the album this time around. Not to be confused with the song, Fear and Friday’s, the poem is extremely raw. Here, Bryan reflects on his life, highlighting his accomplishments, faults and views on the world. It truly sets the tone for this reflective record and establishes the fact that Bryan doesn’t particularly care about conforming to the standards of modern country music.
As for the minor negatives present on Zach Bryan, they are very few and far between. The only two songs that I would consider disappointments are Smaller Acts and the highly-anticipated, Spotless, featuring the Lumineers.
As for Smaller Acts, the minimal production and highly annoying bird present in the latter half of the track ultimately kill this lyrically brilliant song. As for Spotless, the harmonies present feel a bit off. I love Bryan and Wesley Schultz’s vocals individually, but when they’re put together they don’t sound nearly as strong. Conceptually, it’s a well-written song about how Bryan grapples with being spotless and flawed. The song in its entirety simply falls flat vocally and musically despite the strong writing.
Time will tell how the record ages in the eyes of Bryan’s adoring fans and the country music world in general. However, one thing that is abundantly clear is that he is not making music for the charts, streaming platforms or labels. Bryan is an artist and poet first and a superstar second.
Listen to Overtime, Fear and Friday’s and Summertime’s Close here: