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.

Song Review: Zac Brown Band, “The Man Who Loves You The Most”

When it comes to a career reviver, you’re better off going all in than doing things halfway.

If you asked me who the Zac Brown Band is, I’d say “A candidate for an intriguing deep dive.” Since their controversial genre-blending album Jekylll + Hyde (and in particular their EDM-influenced track “Beautiful Drug”), their chart performance has been in freefall, from a pair of #14 singles in “Castaway” and “My Old Man” to a gag-inducing #55 peak with their latest single “Leaving Love Behind.” The group is officially standing on the edge of viability staring into the abyss of irrelevance, and they’re trying once again to recapture their old formula by closing the book on The Owl and bringing out a brand-new single in “The Man Who Loves You The Most.” It’s a fairly-standard ode-to-my-daughter song, but it’s hindered by poor execution at nearly every turn, leaving it as generally uninteresting and forgettable.

The production is reminiscent of “Leaving Love Behind” in that the band’s original sound serves as the foundation, but its includes a number of more-recent influences that seem unnecessary and mostly get in the way. The opening acoustic guitar does a nice job carrying the melody and establishing the typical warm, reflective atmosphere, but the drum machine and electric guitar that join in on the second chorus are a little jarring and give the mix a slicker feel that doesn’t suit the mood nearly as well, and the incorporation of a full drum set is another rough transition that disrupts the song’s flow with its added volume and punch. (The relegation of the fiddle to background noise and a few scattered riffs feels like a wasted opportunity to both complement the acoustic base and give the sound a more-distinct feel.) The overall vibe is suitably heartfelt, but the issues the mix has when bringing in more pieces to build momentum blunt its impact rather than enhancing it, and the result is a listener who shrugs, says “That’s nice,” and moves on.

Brown himself is usually a strong vocalist with some decent charisma, but he’s plagues by some technical issues on this track. More specifically, the clarity of his voice seems to vary throughout the track: It starts out a bit fuzzy (and almost sounds distorted), clears up quickly, and then falters on the last line of the track badly enough that it makes him sound like a completely different person. While his range and power are fine otherwise, these vocal inconsistencies disrupt the song’s flow much like the production does, keeping him from feeling believable in the narrator’s role. Unlike “My Old Man,” Brown doesn’t make the song feel personal enough to interest the audience in his tale (despite the fact that he has four daughters in real life), and the song ends up as more tepid than touching as a result. (The band doesn’t add a whole lot here either, and the sounds blends in a bit too well with everything else on the radio.) It’s not a terrible performance, but it’s not the kind of career-resuscitating ballad Brown and his team really needed.

The lyrics come across as a bit weak because they don’t go far enough to make the song moving or memorable. The story follows a man and his daughter as life separates them through work, college, and eventually death, and while I like the way the story progresses, there’s not enough detail in each of the vignettes to let the listener picture the scene, and the details that are present feel a bit too cookie-cutter and saccharine, a pencil sketch that feels more like a tracing than an original piece. The chorus declarations of seeing seven wonders and sailing seven seas feel more awkward than they should, and the hook turns the song into a watered-down version of Heartland’s “I Loved Her First” without taking the time that Heartland did to outline the history between the father and daughter and give the listener a sense of why the bond was so strong. In other words, the track is a Cliff notes version of a better song, and its message is substantially weaker as a result.

“The Man Who Loves You The Most” could be classified as a disappointment, as it feels like a great song that the Zac Brown Band undermined with a series of unforced errors. Neither the production nor the vocals nor the writing do enough to elevate the song into something emotional enough to draw the audience in, and thus the song winds up as a merely okay addition to the airwaves. It’s certainly not enough to save a career as off-track as the Zac Brown Band’s has been over the past five years, and will do little to silence the critics who consider Brown and company turncoats for their Jekyll + Hyde transgressions. The song was a good start, but when my inevitable analysis of this band’s career appears sometime in 2023, this song likely won’t warrant a mention.

Rating: 6/10. Give it a spin, but temper your expectations before you do.

Song Review: Zac Brown Band, “Leaving Love Behind”

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.

Song Review: Zac Brown Band, “Someone I Used To Know”

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.

Song Review: Zac Brown Band, “Roots”

It seems that the Zac Brown “Please Forgive Us” tour is still playing…but is it too little, too late?

After suffering a major fan backlash for its genre-bending album Jekyll + Hyde, ZBB promised a return to their roots on their follow-up disc Welcome Home. Country radio, however, was surprisingly lukewarm and unwelcome to the band, as the leadoff single “My Old Man” (despite being one of my favorite singles of 2017 thus far) only made it to #14 on the airplay charts before stalling out. Nevertheless, the band doubled down on their old-school approach with the album’s second single (appropriately titled “Roots”), and while the effort is worth applauding, I find the song to be a bit weaker than its predecessor, which makes me question its radio viability.

Production, the Zac Brown band sticks to the formula that made them great in the first place, with a fiddle, acoustic guitar, and piano featured prominently from the beginning, and an electric guitar and banjo thrown in later for flavor. (The (real) drums here deserve some special recognition, giving the song much more drive than some of ZBB’s recent offerings.) However, I have two major issues with the mix:

  • The song squanders its energy-building potential by pulling its punches on the chorus. There are some great electric guitar swells that lead up to the first chorus, making the listener anticipate a big sonic explosion, and then…nothing. The electric guitar pulls out abruptly, and the chorus chugs along with the same slightly-restrained tone of the verses. Subsequent choruses release a bit more energy thanks to the inclusion of the drums, but those transitions are nowhere near the visceral moment they should be, which is really disappointing.
  • The song’s reliance on minor chords gives the song a more melancholic feel than it should, and instead of establishing the upbeat, chase-your-dreams vibe the song wants, it feels like a last-gasp, career-winding down single. It’s probably great for closing a live show, but as a single it makes the listener how much the Zac Brown Band has left in the tank.

To his credit, Zac Brown gives a decent vocal performance on “Roots,” exhibiting more than enough charisma and earnestness to sell the song and make it believable. He maintains his tone well in both his lower and upper ranges (which is no surprise to anyone who’s heard “Sunday Finest”), and his flow is steady without feeling too methodical or plodding. While I’m a little unsure about the future about the Zac Brown Band, Brown himself probably has a bright future as a solo artist should he choose to go that route.

The writing here tells the tale of an up-and-coming musician’s rise from guitar-picking dreamer to arena-packing superstar. While there are some interesting lines here (my favorite is the opener “My first best friend was a six string”) and there’s nothing here that’s going to offend anyone’s sensibilities, there’s not a lot here that’s particular unique or memorable. (I actually prefer the Eli Young Band’s take on this topic with “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” and neither that song nor “Roots” can touch Alan Jackson’s “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow.”) The song lacks the easy relatability or sheer emotional power of “My Old Man,” and thus doesn’t leave nearly the impact on the listener.

Overall, “Roots” is an okay song, but not a particularly interesting one, and not what I would call one of the stronger offerings in the Zac Brown Band’s discography. While the ZBB is certainly sticking to its promise to deliver more “Roots”-y music, I’m doubtful it’ll be enough to reestablish their radio relevance.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few listens, but probably not much more.

Song Review: Zac Brown Band, “My Old Man”

Are you tired of Zac Brown’s dalliances with electronic music? Do you break out in hives whenever “Beautiful Drug” comes on the radio? Do you wish Brown and his band would get back to playing “real” country music, like they did when they first hit Nashville? If you answered yes to any of these questions, brace yourself, because the band has a new single you might be interested in.

Brown’s reputation took a huge hit when he called out Bro-Country as being shallow and repetitive…and then promptly jumped on the Metropolitan trend with their album Jekyll + Hyde, causing many fans and critics to accuse Brown and Co. of hypocrisy. The album earned ZBB three No. 1s on the country charts and another on the rock charts, but the damage done to the band’s image seemed to negate the album’s success. It only takes one song to change peoples’ minds, however, and with “My Old Man,” the leadoff single for ZBB’s upcoming album, the group seems intent on proving that their classic country credentials are still intact.

Calling the song’s production “old-school” doesn’t even begin to describe the instrumentation here. For example, you can forget the debate over real vs. synthetic drums; this song doesn’t appear to have any percussion at all. In fact, there are only three instruments here that you’ll notice: The acoustic guitar that drives the melody, a fiddle that gets added about halfway through, and a muted piano that jumps in late in the game. (I’m sure there’s a bass in there somewhere, but it’s so low in the mix you don’t hear it.) The song quickly establishes a slower tempo and sets a reverential-yet-melancholic tone, perfectly matches the song’s theme (more on that later).

The song’s vocal tracks are similarly stripped down: Brown covers most of the duties himself without any hint of added effects, and the rest of the crew jumps in to add some tight harmonies on the choruses. Brown avoids performing any vocal gymnastics here, and sticks to a solid, straightforward delivery that gets the message across, much as he did with the band’s early material. While his prior comments may have ruined his credibility in the eyes of some, he comes across as earnest and believable here.

The song itself is a tribute to the singer’s father (who is apparently deceased), declaring Brown’s appreciation for his father’s teachings and hopes that he can be the same kind of role model and teacher to his own son. While this sort of fatherly tribute has been done before (Alan Jackson’s “Drive,” George Strait’s “Love Without End, Amen,” and Conway Twitty’s “That’s My Job” come to mind), it’s been a loooong time since anyone’s covered this ground (or done anything this substantive at all, for that matter), which will help it stand out on the radio. While the lyrics are a bit broad and generic, this will likely help it connect with a wide audience. Basically, if you’ve got a father, you’re going to feel this one, and the Zac Brown Band wisely keeps things simple to avoid getting in the way of the message.

Overall, “My Old Man” is a nice, touching song that represents a return to form for the Zac Brown Band, a return many of their fans have been eagerly anticipating. Beyond that, however, it’s a sign that substance is back in style on country radio, which bodes well for the genre’s future.

Well played, ZBB. Well played.

Rating: 7/10. This one was worth the wait.