There’s no doubt that country music is having a big moment right now—earlier this summer, country songs occupied all the top 3 spots on the Hot 100 for the first time in history. Then, it happened again, and again. But, such a milestone can feel hard to celebrate given the caliber of some of these tracks—from cloying, over-produced love songs to regressive political statements.
Thankfully, things are looking up with the release of Zach Bryan’s latest, self-titled effort. Earnest, sincere and deeply thoughtful, Zach Bryan is the exact opposite of the corporate and bro country that is actively dominating the Hot 100. Though the impact of Bryan’s fame following the success of “Something In The Orange” has clearly impacted the Oklahoman—as evidenced in his lyrics—it hasn’t really changed his intimate and direct style of songwriting. When he declares on the spoken-word opener, “I don’t need a music machine telling me what a good story is,” he means it.
In comparison to the admirable (but intimidatingly long) American Heartbreak, Zach Bryan clocks in at a relatively concise 54 minutes. Though it traverses different tempos and altering emotional states, these 16 songs largely circle the same themes—the capacity of this world to corrupt us versus the forces that keep us going. “Overtime,” a propulsive anthem which begins with a “Star Spangled Banner” guitar lick, offers a litany of oppressive challenges (“a mean, mean gene in my family tree” and complaints about his “songs sound[ing] the same,” among them). A triumphant swirl of horns, guitars and drums imply what we already know: Bryan’s work is at a career, emotional high.
Bryan mines the depth of grief across multiple moments on Zach Bryan—sometimes emerging with silver linings and suggestions of a better path forward, and sometimes not. The affecting “East Side of Sorrow” offers a strikingly precise (but widely relatable) tale that scales fighting a seemingly endless war, religious alienation and death. Amidst cascading tragedy, Bryan finds solace via expanding his horizons (“Stick out your chest, and then hit the road”) and offers a simple, but convincing, affirmation: “Let it be, then let it go”.
Elsewhere, darkness only begets more darkness. On the stunning “Jake’s Piano – Long Island,” Bryan creates a desolate portrait of grief’s aftermath through a collage of old memories and blunt confessionals about excessive drinking and emotional isolation (“My mind ain’t well and I just can’t tell you why”). On the lilting “I Remember Everything,” a duet performed with Kacey Musgraves, we lay witness to a conversation between two increasingly distant partners. Here, memories of better days—of all-nighters, trips in an “‘88 Ford” and days spent on the beach—are gradually eclipsed by a grim, present day reality, where Musgraves asks: “You’re drinking everything to ease your mind / But when the hell are you gonna ease mine?” The jarring contrasts throughout the song capture the push-and-pull dynamics of a relationship gone astray—specifically, how the more a relationship deteriorates, the stronger the impulse becomes to retreat to, and even try to resuscitate, memories of better days.
American Heartbreak made clear that Bryan was a songwriting tour de force who stood head and shoulders above many of his Top-40 peers, and Zach Bryan only punctuates this fact. Although Bryan’s central influences still remain obvious—you sense that he had Jason Isbell’s Southeastern on heavy rotation while writing “Summertime’s Close” and “Hey Driver”—his newest effort finds him getting closer than ever to nailing a singular, signature sound entirely of his own. Most promising of all, Zach Bryan puts focus on an artist who can do it all, who can pull off driving country-rockers like “Overtime” as well as solemn ballads like “Jake’s Piano.” Bryan is someone who can write about isolation just as viscerally as he can love—and he can even do so over the course of just one song (“I Remember Everything”).
Though Bryan spends his newest LP circling the same, reliable set of themes—love and its limitations, hopelessness and a deep well of resilience, etc.—you don’t emerge from the LP with a sense of linear narrative. Across 16 songs, relationships fail and prosper and then fail again; hope deteriorates and grows, only to deteriorate again. What Zach Bryan is is a moving portrait of life’s knottiest, in-between moments. If the music has one prevailing message, it’s that the journey is often more rewarding—or at least, more revealing—than the destination.