My reaction to this song boils down to one word: Why?
Remember when people actually liked the Zac Brown Band? The last half of the 2010s were not kind to the group: Jekyll + Hyde was ridiculed for including some of the genre-bending work that Zac Brown had called out other artists for, Welcome Home got a lukewarm reaction for feeling insincere in the wake of its predecessor, and frankly, the less said about their current album The Owl, the better. (The more I look at this band, the more I see a future subject for my ‘What Happened To…?’ deep dive series.) Despite their album issues, however, their single choices haven’t been that bad: “Someone I Used To Know” was okay, even if it had to settle for a #29 peak on Billboard’s airplay chart, and their latest single “Leaving Love Behind” falls in pretty much the same bin. It’s a decently-constructed, satisfactorily-executed song that’s ultimately undone by not going far enough with its story, leaving the listener more confused than anything else when the track finishes.
Zac Brown may have assembled a solid band, but he has a habit of sidelining or outright ignoring them on the act’s singles, and “Leaving Love Behind” is no exception. The song opens as a piano-only ballad (serious song alert!), but outside of a violin bridge solo and some choral singer backup on the verses, the piano is basically all you get (even the percussion is reduced to just a few drawn-out cymbal taps). It’s the sort of stripped down, straightforward approach that Chris Janson used to great effect on “Drunk Girl,” and it kinda-sorta does its job by not distracting the listener and staying out of the way of the writing. The problem is that the somber, reflective, almost spiritual feel of the mix oversells what is really just another lost-love story at its core (the lyrics bear a fair bit of the blame for this, as we’ll discuss later). The lack of energy and noise keep the listener a bit too focused on what the song is saying, and when the song keeps its cards this close to its vest, the listener is left wondering what the big deal is, and why they should bother caring at all.
Brown’s vocal performance falls into the “solid, but not spectacular” category, as he does a tolerable job telling the story, but doesn’t sell the story well enough to truly draw the audience in. From a technical perspective, Brown sounds fine: He’s got enough range to cover the song’s demands, enough flow to make his delivery feel smooth and not spoil the mood, and enough power to add some extra presence on the chorus. (The band harmonies and choral backing also add a lot of presence and power to the track, and are probably the best part of the song.) Brown is not Carrie Underwood or Rachel Wammack, however, and without much support from the writing he’s unable to elevate the track to make it feel truly moving or emotional. (I mean, it’s hard to feel bad for the guy when we know so little of the story behind him.) Brown remains a talented and charismatic vocalist and demonstrates that he’s still got the chops to be reckoned with here, but I’m just not feeling his performance the way he expects me too, and it isn’t enough to pump some helium into the leaden lyrics.
Stop beating around the bush, Kyle. What’s the problem with the writing? In a nutshell, the issue appears to be a misplaced level of detail that focuses on the trees instead of the forest. The narrator laments a love that seems to have ended prematurely, and how “leaving love behind” in the hardest part of moving on. Unfortunately, that’s all we get: The lyrics give us absolutely zero indication of what actually went down: Did the other person leave the narrator? Did they pass away? Did the pair still love each other, but have to separate for other reasons (to pursue a dream à la Eric Church’s “Round Here Buzz”?) Was the split acrimonious, but have the pair come to regret the decision à la Little Texas’s “What Might Have Been?” Not only does the song not clarify the situation, it actively clouds it by simultaneously leaning into spiritual language (the drawn-out “I belieeeeeve” lines on the chorus) while also saying things like “everything we lose will be a gift in time,” suggesting the split was more along the lines of “Round Here Buzz” (I doubt anyone looks back and says “You know, I’m glad that person died when they did”). When we get details from the song, they’re in the form of small vignettes (“I remember the sound of our roof in the rain,” “We were listening to the record on the end of your bed”) that don’t actually tell us anything about what’s going on. Being effectively vague is one thing, but this song feels ineffectively roundabout, making the listener question whether or not the sad tale is truly worth emotionally investing in.
While I don’t think the Zac Brown Band deserves all the flak they’ve received over the past five years or so, I also don’t think “Leaving Love Behind” is anything more than an okay song. Without a clear lyrical foundation, the production and vocals, decent though they may be, are left grasping at straws trying to paint their own version of the picture, and the audience is left feeling a bit “meh” as a result. Zac Brown and his crew are staring down a slow descent to obscurity right now, and if they want to get off that path and try to maintain their relevance, their songs need a clearer vision that doesn’t leave the listener hanging like this.
Rating: 6/10. Give it a listen and see how you feel about it, but don’t be surprised if you don’t feel much.