Like I was saying, I didn’t care either way what the Zac Brown Band decided to do with their new album. Whether they wanted to continue pushing their genre-bending sound (without releasing some of those tracks to country…) or go back to their roots was fine by me. Either way, I would have been excited for this new album. As you remember from that piece I linked from the piece at the beginning of this paragraph, I was a little disappointed with the band’s new material thus far. It just felt uninspired, and while I always like to be fair to everything, it was hard to come into this with a clear head.
As for what I think of the album now that I’ve heard it? Well folks, if you follow me on Twitter you might have noticed that I compared this record to Cody Johnson’s “Gotta Be Me” from last year. While I didn’t let this slip when I reviewed this record last year, there’s a reason for that comparison. After giving this album a ton of listens, I can easily see the flaws in this record, or rather, where other people might find faults in this record. The writing isn’t always strong, it’s too short, it’s lacking, it’s boring…I get it. It’s probably scary that at this point in my writing journey I’ve picked that kind of stuff up, but there’s a part of me that gets it.
But there’s also a part of me that just doesn’t give a shit, because as a whole, I enjoyed this a lot more than I maybe should. Sure, much like on Jekyll + Hyde the writing is a little too broad or non-descriptive, heck, even hokey – that I’ll agree with. However, more often than not the tracks that the criticism applies to often more than make it up in more than enough areas.
Take the first two tracks for example. I might not have loved “Roots” or “Real Thing” when I heard them as standalone songs (since they were pre-release tracks), but in the context of the album they flow incredibly well (that’s another note – this is one of the most consistent records I’ve heard this year). “Roots” in particular has such an upbeat energy to it, and while I’m not a fan of “Real Thing” lyrically, those harmonies in the chorus are wonderful.
That’s another point to be made. While there is still some work to be done in making the Zac Brown Band feel like a “band” again, there’s at least a much stronger effort towards that goal on this album. I already talked “Real Thing”, but you also see their fun side on “Start Over”, the obligatory beach song on every Zac Brown Band. Usually I’m not even a fan of these tracks because there always just about well….being at the beach. “Jump Right In”, “Knee Deep”, and “Castaway” never really carried any interesting stories the way that “Toes” did. That’s why I want to give “Start Over” some credit, because at least it tries to frame the concept of going to the beach as a way to rekindle the spark that this narrator and his lover once had. That, and it’s catchy as all hell. Plus, it’s also a good lead in to one of my favorite tracks, “Your Majesty”. If I thought the harmonies on “Real Thing” were great then this song somehow has them beat. Between the harder hitting acoustics and the “ohs” that hit after the hook, there’s just such a great energy to this that I love.
Now to answer the question of, “is it too mid-tempo or boring?”…..well, I honestly don’t see it, but to each his or her own. “Family Table” is one of those tracks that’s a little hokey lyrically, but that bouncy fiddle melody is too damn bright and happy for me to say I dislike, especially when we get to that solo (at least they let it ride out). While I also think “Long Haul” pales in comparison to similar tracks such as “Your Majesty” and especially “Trying To Drive”, I think there’s a nice rocking solo to end out on as well. On the note of “Trying To Drive” though (done with Madison Ryann), there is some really fantastic writing here. It’s a nice older song by the band made new again.
But to fully answer the question from before, yeah, there’s definitely slower songs here, and they’re some of the best. I still can’t get into “My Old Man”. I respect it but I can’t personally connect to it at all. However, “Two Places At One Time” is another track that balances a nice acoustic melody with some nice fiddle play (nice to see you have more of a prominent role this time around Mr. Jimmy De Martini!), and sure, it’s your standard life on the road song that we’ve heard a million times, but that doesn’t make it bland. Zac’s a great emotive interpreter, and on the subject of authenticity from before, I believe the sadness in his voice as he wishes he could be home with his family as well as out on the road at the same time.
Of course, if you want to get into emotional connection, we’ve got to talk about the John Prine cover of “All The Best” (with Kacey Musgraves singing backup). If you wondered why there’s no country confessional this week, well, here’s a bombshell – I like this version better. The sad acoustic melody coupled with Zac’s delivery suits the biting cynicism of the lyrical content perfectly. I’ll be honest, there’s also a part of me that relates to this pessimistic outlook on love as well, so it hits home.
So overall, I enjoyed this album a lot more than I thought it would. If the Zac Brown Band were truly looking to connect with their roots with this release, they pulled it off. Again, I get the criticisms others will have with this record, and some of those are ones I share. However, a lot of them are criticisms I don’t share either. Welcome home indeed Zac. For me, I’m feeling a light to decent 8/10 for this project.
Best Songs: “All The Best”, “Your Majesty”, “Roots”, “Start Over”, “Two Places At One Time”
Weakest Song: “Long Haul”