Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Zach Bryan Zach Bryan

Belting Bronco/Warner
Belting Bronco/Warner

Jackson Maine showed up too early. When A Star Is Born came out in 2018, a sticking point, at least among music-nerd types, was who Bradley Cooper’s character was supposed to be. Was he Eddie Vedder? Caleb Followill? Here, we had this guy singing haggard, world-weary country-rock, but he was headlining festivals, popping up in gossip columns, causing an immediate stir when he drunkenly wanders into a drag bar. In the pop climate of the moment, that guy simply didn’t exist. A few years later, we’ve got a ton of those guys, and Zach Bryan is sitting right at the top of the heap. Bryan isn’t quite up to the point where he could discover Lady Gaga and turn her into a star by singing her song onstage. At this rate, though, it won’t take long.

In 2021, barely anyone knew who Zach Bryan was. He was serving in the Navy and releasing home-recorded country records in his spare time, and he was starting to build up a cult among roots-music aficionados. In 2022, shortly after he got his honorable discharge and signed with Warner, Bryan released his major-label debut, the massive triple-album data-dump American Heartbreak. It took off. Without much in the way of institutional support — radio play, televised performances, tours with big-name artists — Bryan found himself playing huge shows to devoted throngs. American Heartbreak went platinum, and its biggest song, the grizzled heartbreak lament “Something In The Orange,” reached the top 10 of the Hot 100. Bryan kept releasing music, too — an EP, a live album, and a handful of standalone singles before the year was over. That music kept connecting. It kept resonating.

A couple of months ago, I saw Zach Bryan play his first-ever arena show, the kickoff of a tour that took him all through the summer. That night, the crowd was one of the loudest I’ve ever heard. Everyone in the room knew every word to every song, and they bellowed along so loud that Bryan didn’t even need to do that much singing. Bryan’s songs are precise and personal and often deeply sad, but they’re also simple and direct and relatable enough to make for titanic mass singalongs. Bryan’s sudden and overwhelming success has had unintended consequences. As I write this, there’s a Zach Bryan soundalike sitting at #1 on the pop charts, but he’s singing about welfare queens and Jeffrey Epstein, two subjects that have never come up in a Zach Bryan song.

It sucks that we can’t talk about Zach Bryan’s new album without also talking about “Rich Men North Of Richmond,” but that’s just how the world is sometimes. I would bet any amount of money that Oliver Anthony saw the same Zach Bryan show that I did. Anthony comes from Farmville, about an hour south of Charlottesville, where I live and where I saw Zach Bryan. I bet that guy was there, and I bet he paid very close attention.

Bryan first found his audience by going viral on Twitter, playing bruised and heartfelt acoustic songs in outdoor settings. Oliver Anthony followed the exact same playbook, growling out his soulfully desperate working-class hymn. Anthony, like Bryan, even has a last name for a first name. (“Oliver Anthony” is not Oliver Anthony’s real name, while “Zachary Bryan” is Zach Bryan’s real name.) But Anthony sings about his slightly incoherent right-wing politics, which Bryan has never done. And Anthony had the usual gaggle of idiots in the reactionary influencer sphere amplifying his voice. Zach Bryan didn’t have that, and he doesn’t need it.

If Zach Bryan and his peers were willing to belt out Fox News talking points, then those goobers wouldn’t have had to find themselves an Oliver Anthony. But Jason Isbell has become a reliable liberal-Twitter voice, Chris Stapleton supports Black Lives Matter, Sturgill Simpson wants socialized healthcare, and Tyler Childers is out here singing queer love stories. Zach Bryan’s politics are mostly mysterious, but we do know that he’s against Ticketmaster and transphobia, and he doesn’t like it when fans chant “let’s go Brandon” at his shows. Oliver Anthony did not exist as a public figure when Bryan started talking about his new album a couple of months ago, but it’s coming out today into a world that Bryan accidentally helped reshape.

If you were looking for some grand statement from Zach Bryan, either political or aesthetic, then Zach Bryan is not the album that you were waiting to hear. Bryan hasn’t been at this for long, but he’s entirely comfortable within his own lane. Bryan’s new self-titled LP has a few big-name guests — Kacey Musgraves, the Lumineers — but he never changes his style to accommodate them. Bryan produced the album himself, and he recorded it with his touring band. He’s the sole writer on all the songs, except for the two that he co-wrote with Musgraves and with a couple of Lumineers, and even those ones still sound just like Zach Bryan songs with a couple of extra voices. Bryan is famous now, but Zach Bryan isn’t any glossier than American Heartbreak. Bryan still leaves studio chatter at the beginnings and ends of many of his songs, and penultimate track “Smaller Acts” was seemingly recorded outside, with crickets chirping in the background and with one very loud bullfrog seemingly croaking right into Bryan’s mic. That bullfrog should’ve asked for a feature credit.

In a way, it’s nice to have a major-label Zach Bryan album that’s not an intimidating two-hour, 34-song marathon. But Zach Bryan isn’t intended as an entry point for the uninitiated. Bryan is making these songs for the people who pack into his shows and who sing along loud. There’s no big stylistic adjustment on Zach Bryan. It’s the same kind of intimate country-rock that Bryan was making last year. The songs sprawl expansively, with acoustic guitars and fiddles and banjos weaving soft, delicate quilts. Sometimes, Bryan gets loud and anthemic. When he does, the drums boom and echo, and we might get a few triumphant trumpet-blasts. But the catharsis isn’t in the arrangements or the production. It’s in Bryan’s battered and worn-in baritone, and it’s in the words.

If there’s a big difference between Zach Bryan and Zach Bryan’s past records, it’s this: Bryan is mostly singing about himself these days. In the past, many of Bryan’s best songs, like “Open The Gate” and “Oklahoma Smokeshow,” where loving, empathetic character studies. On the new album, Bryan mostly seems to be dealing with his own feelings, or singing directly to the people who are no longer in his life — an ex-girlfriend, his late mother. The opening track is a spoken-word statement of intent called “Fear And Friday (Poem)”: “I don’t need a music machine telling me what a good story is. Matter of fact, I’ve never asked nothin’ from nobody.” For the next fifty-some minutes, Bryan uses that same plainspoken, conversational language to tell us more about what he does and doesn’t need.

There’s a whole lot of loss in these songs. “Summertime’s Close” is about a road trip with someone whose health is failing: “Bandana tanline on your forehead, so the tourists don’t know.” “East Side Of Sorrow” paints a painful picture of a hospital waiting room: “Doctor said he did all he could/ You were the last thing I had that was good.” Even the love songs, like the tender Kacey Musgraves duet “I Remember Everything,” are more about loving and losing than just loving: “The sand from your hair is blowing in my eyes/ Blame it on the beach, grown men don’t cry.”

Sometimes, Zach Bryan seems to sing to himself in the second person, as if he’s watching himself from far away and trying to give himself advice that he knows he’ll never take. Sometimes, he even seems to regret his own chosen profession and all the stuff that he reveals for mass consumption: “Do you ever get tired of singing songs, like all your pain is just another fucking singalong?” On “Tourniquet,” he seemingly imagines a dark future for himself: “You’ve been playing your guitar from arenas to the bars, since you were old enough to rhyme a word/ But your face is getting thinner, and you’re praying for the winter/ And I heard you fucked it up with her.” It’s heavy shit.

Zach Bryan is a hell of a writer, and he conveys a lot of thought and feeling in a few finely drawn images. Certain phrases — “a cowboy from a cutthroat town,” “soakin’ chokin’ smokin’ in my old shitty apartment,” “I’m a self-destructive landslide if you wanna be the hill” — have a mythic weight that can feel borderline Springsteenian. Bryan’s songs are simple and relatively low on frills, and they mostly work as vehicles for lyrics like those. But the simplicity is the point.

On “Tradesman,” one of the last songs on Zach Bryan, Zach Bryan imagines that he might live a better life if we never got to hear these songs — if he just held down a day job and played his music in “some tuned-up, tired string band, somewhere out by the Badlands, way past closing time.” That’s the song where Bryan expresses his deepest skepticism of the modern world, with its “backdoor deals and therapy.” It’s the same kind of working-class alienation that helped turn “Rich Men North Of Richmond” into a suspicious sensation. But Bryan doesn’t think like that. Instead, his alienation is a whole lot closer to the Cobain strand: “Give me something I can’t fake, that rich boys can’t manipulate/ Something real that they can’t take/ ‘Cause Lord, I’m not your star.”

Zach Bryan might not be your star, or mine. He’s a young guy working through loss and darkness in full view of the public, and that can’t be easy. His stardom, such as it is, has ramifications that he, and we, are just starting to understand. But Zach Bryan is in this position because he makes music that sticks to your ribs. Zach Bryan is strong and sad and powerful. It’s a good album, one full of lyrics that thousands of people will soon scream as one. Zach Bryan writes about himself, and he sometimes writes to himself. But he writes and sings with so much heft that a whole lot of people are going to hear themselves in this music. That’s a beautiful thing, and it’ll last a whole lot longer than whatever’s got people mad online this week.

Zach Bryan is out now on Belting Bronco/Warner.

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