Review: New Album ‘Zach Bryan’ Embraces Pop Sensibilities Without Forgetting its Roots
On his fourth album, Zach Bryan finds balance between pop and country, refusing to compromise one style for the other.
“I finally quit smokin’ cigarettes” is how Oklahoma singer-songwriter Zach Bryan begins “Jake’s Piano – Long Island” — the ninth track of his self-titled fourth album. When I first listened to “Zach Bryan,” this lyric struck me as strange. After all, the album’s cover features a lone Bryan smoking a cigarette over a black background. In retrospect, I can’t help but admire this apparent contrast. It summarizes the rare quality that makes “Zach Bryan” a special record: its author’s unabashed vulnerability.
Bryan is a man of contradictions. On this album alone, he reveals himself as a lover and a fighter, a brave man and a coward, a small-town boy and a national sensation. Instead of concealing or rejecting those contradictions, Bryan embraces them through songs that are equal parts eloquent, moody and vulnerable. The product is an album that embraces these vulnerabilities without eschewing its commercial potential.
I should admit that I was skeptical of this album until some positive comments from country-fan friends and rave critical reviews convinced me that it was worth a listen. Initially, I had been put off by the album’s (and Bryan’s) meteoric rise to popularity. It currently occupies the number one spot on the Billboard 200, and “I Remember Everything” — Bryan’s collaborative single with fellow country superstar Kacey Musgraves — sits atop the Billboard 100 singles chart. “I Remember Everything” marks the first time a country duet has had the best-selling song in America for a week since Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’s “Islands in the Stream” was released almost exactly 40 years ago.
This popularity itself, of course, does not guarantee unoriginality. But in recent years, some of the most popular country acts have seemed to abandon the folk instrumentals and passionate storytelling that distinguished the country genre in its early days. Like many other children of country fans, who grew up listening to trailblazers like Johnny Cash and Townes Van Zandt, I resonate with Bo Burnham’s famous criticism that much of contemporary country sounds more like good ads than good songs.
“Zach Bryan” completely defied these expectations. Bryan certainly embraces the pop elements that have been at the forefront of country music in recent years without compromising the country genre’s rich history. Whether it is through the catchy choruses of “Overtime” and “Holy Roller (feat. Sierra Ferrell),” his use of diverse instruments like the horns and electric guitar or his collaborations with popular country artists like The Lumineers, Bryan makes music that is sure to appeal to a wide audience.
Bryan uses his popular appeal as a vehicle for country’s emotive lyricism and authentic storytelling. We can see this from the album’s opening minutes. “Fear & Friday’s (Poem)” — the opening track — is a spoken word piece over a lightly strummed guitar. Bryan uses “Fear and Friday’s (Poem)” to give listeners a vivid and vulnerable self-portrait, acting as a preamble to the album. In just under two minutes, Bryan shares some of his life’s proudest accomplishments and opens up about his biggest emotional shortcomings. The track’s ending refrain, “I think fear and Fridays got an awful lot in common, they’re overdone and glorified, and they always leave you wanting,” is a poetic commentary on confronting the fears we face in our own lives.
What makes me admire “Zach Bryan” is that the cleverness and introspection present in the album’s opener hold true on nearly all of its tracks. One of the primary themes Bryan explores on the album is the grief that comes with losing our loved ones. On “East Side of Sorrow” Bryan discusses losing his mother, Annette DeAnn, for whom his debut album “DeAnn” was named, and tells the story of a fellow United States Navy veteran who experienced a mental breakdown. He sings of these losses — physical and metaphorical — with the weathered strain of a weary traveler. We can hear in Bryan’s vocals the suffering that has come from his experiences. This anguish is juxtaposed with lively instrumentals featuring drums, guitars, horns and the hopeful message of Bryan’s chorus: “He said the sun’s gonna rise tomorrow, somewhere on the east side of sorrow”. Bryan conveys profound moments of introspection in his voice and lyrics, but he also encourages empathetic listeners to try and dance in the rain.
The album’s collaborative tracks also represent this balance. “Hey Driver,” featuring husband-wife duo The War and the Treaty, features passionate vocal harmonies and contemplative piano and guitar, all the while focusing on issues of depression and loneliness. “I Remember Everything” is a dark and moody ballad as Bryan and Musgraves take on heartbreak — a classic country theme — in a catchy and soulful way. Toward the end of the album, Bryan’s tracks turn even more somber and introspective: “Jake’s Piano – Long Island,” a double-track that again deals with themes of grief and loss, features some of Bryan’s most vulnerable vocals on the whole project. It feels as though Bryan is coaxing us to open up and address the grief we have endured in our own lives. The closing track, “Oklahoman Son,” is a poetic tribute to Bryan’s origins. Instead of a shallow embrace of his hometown, however, Bryan provides listeners with a portrait of the experiences that shaped his youth. It is a highly empathetic description of the mix of emotions we feel when returning home after a long time away.
By contrast, “Holy Roller” and “Spotless,” which feature Sierra Ferell and The Lumineers, respectively, fall a bit short — in my opinion — of the album’s high standards for quality. Admittedly, they are catchy, but they represent the places in which Bryan’s willingness to embrace collaboration might water down the introspective vocals that make his music great.
Whether it is the charismatic collaborations, enthused pop anthems, or introspective ballads on “Zach Bryan,” nearly every track on this album embodies an ideal balance between catchy song structure and captivating storytelling. In crafting them, Bryan pulls off a genuinely impressive accomplishment, regardless of genre: an album with popular sensibilities that does not forget the stylistic origins that underpin it. Perhaps this album’s transcendent success will inspire other artists, in country and beyond, to make albums that strike this delicate balance. If so, we should consider ourselves lucky. A future full of albums that sound as compellingly human as “Zach Bryan” would leave no music lover empty-handed.