Yogi Berra was once quoted as saying “When you see a fork in the road, take it,” but the Zac Brown Band is the only group I’ve seen try to take that advice.
It’s been a rough last couple of years for Zac Brown and the band that bares his name. Their Jekyll + Hyde album drew cries of treason from the traditional country crowd, but their follow-up Welcome Home drew accusations of pandering from critics and mostly crickets from country radio, as “My Old Man” faltered at #14 on Bilboard’s airplay chart and “Roots” barely got off the ground before crashing and burning at #36. With the book closed on both albums, the band was faced with a choice: Should they embark on more genre-bending adventures, or stick with the traditionally-minded schtick that they had built their early success on? From the sound of their new single “Someone I Used To Know,” it sounds like Brown and company selected Door #3, which was labeled “all of the above.” It’s an awkward fusion of both traditional and modern sounds that comes across as a meta commentary about how Brown’s past exploits have left he and his crew in the precarious position they’re in now.
The production here is one of those mixes that has something for everyone, which means it will end up pleasing no one. There’s an acoustic guitar, mandolin, and fiddle for the classical country crowd, but there’s also a drum machine, a plethora of synth swells, and enough sudden blasts of effect-enhanced instruments (especially the fiddle) to make the whole thing sound like a Chainsmokers album cut. The real instruments may be clean and sharp, but the track is dominated by minor chords (especially on the chorus) that put a damper on the mood and hint at the depths the narrator have traversed on their way to where they are now. Despite the spacious sound and semi-bright tone, I don’t hear a lot of hope or optimism in this track—instead of a sonic twist that lifts the mood and gives the song a sense of resolution, the compass needle points down from beginning the end and leaves the listener with a sense of unease: Is the narrator going to be okay? Given the pessimistic reflections of the writing, however, the sour mix actually fits the song quite well, and provides some decent momentum that keeps the song moving from beginning to end. Traditionalists might recoil at this sound, but I’d say it actually hits more than it misses.
Brown still sounds as good as he did on “Chicken Fried” (even if that song was a lazy laundry list), and after the sh…er, stuff he’s seen over the past few years, he’s earned himself an extra layer of authority on this subject. The effortless range and power of his voice lets him glide through the song without skating through it, and his earnest charisma let him easily slide into the shoes of a narrator who rapid fall from grace and uncertain recovery mirrors Brown’s own transition from hero to villain through the mid to late 2010s. While I wouldn’t say that I can really feel the narrator’s plain, I certainly feel sorry for the guy, and find him to be a sympathetic character even though the harm seems to have been mostly self-inflicted. While some may question his musical tastes, there’s no denying Brown can find a way around a song (even one co-written by Shawn Mendes) and make it his own.
The lyrics tell the story of a narrator whose past self (i.e., “someone I used to know”) engaged in a pattern of unsustainable, self-destructive behavior that drove them down a rabbit hole that they’re only now starting to climb out of, and who now stresses the importance of letting go of the past in order to move forward again. It’s a solid message that feels like it might be directed at Brown himself (although it’s unclear whether the path he needs to abandon is his Jekyll + Hyde experimentation or his Welcome Home party that wasn’t). While the imagery has its moments (“Rides the high that tears him down/Hates himself and loves the crowd” is probably the best of the bunch), the imagery here is mostly boilerplate, and quickly goes through the usual “riding high to rock bottom” without much elaboration. Instead, the focus is on the punch line, with the chorus hammering home the importance of breaking free of the high-flying, self-hating person they used to be. The resolution, unfortunately, is kind of messy: We don’t actually get to the see narrator recover from their fall (and the tone of the song makes the whole thing feel pretty precarious), and thus it lacks the “success story” aspect that would really drive the song’s point home. It resonates enough for Brown to forge a connection with his audience and sell them on the story, but whether said story has a happy ending or not is as unclear as Brown’s future in country music.
Overall, “Someone I Used To Know” is a decent-enough song, and one that I’d certainly take over some of the drivel I’ve reviewed recently. The point is fuzzy but well-intentioned, the production is clumsy but suitable, and Zac Brown does a nice job in the role of a chastened and wizened narrator. Is it enough to make the Zac Brown Band relevant again and give the story a truly happy ending? We’ll just have to wait and see.
Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few listens to see how it strikes you.