Song Review: Zac Brown Band, “Same Boat”

We may all be in the “Same Boat,” but that doesn’t mean much when our fellow passengers are doing all they can to sink it.

2021 has thus far been defined by the mother of all contradictions: We all claim to want unity and to work together as a nation/planet to face the challenges of the future, but in reality we’ve lost so much trust in other people that we really don’t want to work with them any more, or even inhabit the same spaces as them. For country music, a genre that lives these days to paper over/ignore conflict, this presents a problem, as there’s just no market for sappy Kumbaya-esque tracks that ask us all to come together. Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard found this out the hard way with “Undivided,” a track that few have had good things to say about and has been stalled in the mid-to-high teens for a while, and the Zac Brown Band is about to learn the same lesson with “Same Boat,” whose working title was probably “Undivided but with a Boat Metaphor,” because that’s all it is. For a band that hasn’t seen the Top Twenty since 2017 and is clinging to any shred of relevancy it can find, this isn’t going to advance the band or its message of unity.

The production here is a return to the band’s classic style, and while it’s a nice change of pace from other current tracks, it doesn’t do much of a job pushing its message. The song is mostly driven by a bright, peppy acoustic guitar and backed by a mix of real percussion (both hand- and stick-played, and even the hand claps on the bridge seem organic), with an electric guitar and Jimmy De Martini’s recognizable fiddle mostly working in the background until they split the bridge solo and get some time in the spotlight. The major chords and bright tones that dominate the mix give the song an optimistic feel, projecting confidence (however unfounded) that we can put aside our differences and get along, but the overall vibe here is chill and relaxed and there’s a general lack of urgency, suggesting that unity is something we’ll get around to eventually and we’ll totally be fine until then, which sort of undermines the whole point of the song. It puts the song in the awkward position of both caring and not caring about the state of the world, and the mixed signals only serve to confuse the listener and muddle the message. It just feels like the producer hit Ctrl-C on “Chicken Fried” or “Toes” and pasted the same sound here, even though the it’s not quite the mix the song needed.

Zac Brown and the rest of the band run into the same problem: They’re concerned enough about the state of the world to say something about it, but there’s no real energy or emotion behind the words, making it feel like a halfhearted inspirational speech. There aren’t any technical issues to speak of and Brown himself still has a charm-filled persona to lean on, but said charm seems to be misguided here: His words say “we have a problem,” but his unhurried delivery and demeanor say “It’s all going to be fine,” which make the narrator’s statements feel empty and leads the audience to question just how seriously to take him. The narrator also quickly glosses over and minimizes the outrage and pain that people feel, making him seem more than a little out of touch as they try to lecture the listener about unity. (For all their instrumental work, the band’s harmony work is pretty forgettable, and they don’t do much to cover for the narrator’s deficiencies.) Again, this performance feels like an attempt to recapture the magic of ZBB’s early tracks while delivering a weightier message, but this weight is just as dependent on the artist’s approach as it is on the writing, and copy-pasting narrators between different tracks just doesn’t work when the tracks are this different.

Just as we saw with “Undivided,” the lyrics lament the toxic, polarized attitude that dominates our current discourse, and they plead for people to love and understand one another, saying that “we’re all in the same boat.” I actually think the boat metaphor works pretty well to describe our shared destiny, and the “If the ship keeps rocking we’ll all go overboard” line would have landed had Brown not slowed it down and instead put some feeling behind it. That said, this song suffers from many of the same problems as “Undivided”: It doesn’t go into any detail on the problems we face or the solutions to fix that (we just get the usual platitudes about loving and helping everyone), it doesn’t help us understand the different perspectives of individuals (it tells us “you can’t judge a man until you walk a country mile in his shoes,” but doesn’t provide any guidance to help us do the walking) and it assumes that we all want the same thing and have the same basic vision for the country and world (definitely not true on a macro level, and given how large the income inequality gap is, it’s not always true at the micro level either). There are plenty of awkward moments in the writing as well: The persistence of the Big Lie shows that you can “hide from your truth,” and saying “Take those shots and keep reloading” seems pretty tone-deaf given the nation’s current surge in mass shootings. Ultimately, no one is in the mood to come together right now, and this track fails to change anyone’s mind.

“Same Boat” is not an inherently bad song, but it really misread the moment, and really doesn’t do much to push its message of unity and togetherness. Neither the production nor the Zac Brown Band itself really takes the message seriously, and while the writing tries its best to salvage the song, it simply doesn’t convince anyone to pay attention, especially in our current divided society. This will restore neither our national sense of community nor ZBB’s previous prominent position in the genre, and while it’s far from the worst thing on the airwaves right now, if we really want to make a difference and bring people together, we’ve got to move beyond the platitudes and doing something to make peoples’ lives better.

Rating: 6/10. Listen to this once or twice, and then set it aside, stop talking about bringing people together, and find ways to actually do it instead.