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Zach Bryan brings new light to the neo-traditional Country space with his anthemic songwriting, fresh storytelling and weathered vocal performances

MOORHEAD — 2023 has been Country music’s biggest year commercially since the 90’s. Artists like Morgan Wallen and Luke Combs are putting up the biggest sales and streaming numbers of the year. (Wallen’s single Last Night spent 16 weeks at number one on the US Billboard Hot 100).   

With the first portion of the 2010’s being largely dominated by maximalist, synthy club pop and rap, and the last half a deluge of lowkey indie-influenced pop and trap, country music has had a hard time fitting into a changed musical landscape.  

The success of an artist like Morgan Wallen, who’s music is accessible in its experimentation with hip hop and pop textures, is in contrast to the success of Luke Combs. Combs’ cover of Tracy Chapman’s folk anthem Fast Car leans on more traditional country elements with the tinges of folk carried over from Chapman’s original. 

But where does Zach Bryan fit? 

His music isn’t the trap-pop-country crossover smashes Wallen’s found wild success in, nor is it the almost easygoing, smoothness of Comb’s recent work. Zach Bryan brings new light to the neo-traditional Country space with his anthemic songwriting, fresh storytelling, and weathered vocal performances.  

In an Instagram post prior to the album’s release, Brian wrote: “I just wrote some poems and songs that I want to share because I think they’re special” and the personal nature of the songs rings true in the opener “Fear and Fridays (Poem)” Bryan wears his heart on his sleeve with lines like “I am unhinged, unworthy, and distasteful to mostly everyone I meet, however I am loyal to a fault to anyone I find kindness in / I do not and will not fear tomorrow because I feel as though today has been enough”  

Fear and Fridays (Poem) quickly launches into “Overtime”, a track that instrumentally serves as an overture of the record with its “Star-Spangled Banner” guitar interpolation, before moving into the Springsteen-esque driving drums and trumpet hits that propel the song forward. But rather than soak up any of the maximalist pomp that might recall a Bruce Springsteen song, Bryan chooses to let his voice (which is especially prevalent in the mixing of all these songs) speak for itself. The way Bryan says the word “child” is enough to make your heart break. 

The one-two punch of “East Side of Sorrow or Summertime’s Close” are more reflective cuts on the album. “Summertime’s Close” being a sparser track with its lone acoustic guitar and warm harmonica lines across it’s runtime, metaphorical lyrics comparing the end of summer to the end of a relationship (the chorus “When the day’s cooling off and the summertime’s close / I lost faith in the world a long time ago” are particularly emotional) “East Side of Sorrow” touches more on Bryan’s time in the Navy with lines like They said “Boy, you’re gonna fight a war / You don’t even know what you’re fighting for” and the build-up in this song couples its instrumental intensity with an amazing snare drum sound with pedal steel guitar. 

The album as a whole eschews fancy production tricks for more of a homespun nature. The opening conversation in “Hey Driver” for example feels more like a jam among friends, and gives these songs more life than an isolated song vacuum.  

The loose guitar solos and backing vocals throughout the non-poem “Fear and Friday’s” feel like a big sing-along with your best friends. The fuzzy guitar arpeggios throughout Tourniquet are nice ear candy, and sound great. “Spotless” with The Lumineers is a forgettable track, with the weakest hook on the album.  

For a band that brings similar “sing-around-the-campfire” energies as Zach Bryan on this album, this cut surprisingly lacks the life of Bryan’s songwriting on the other songs. Compositionally, the song “Tradesmen” plays similar beats, although Bryan’s lyricism convey nostalgia in a bittersweet way that’s more endearing. 

Surprise hit “I Remember Everything” is a stellar ballad on the album. The vocal chemistry between Bryan and guest Kacey Musgraves is the best out of every guest on the album. The slow burn composition at it’s heart heightens the emotional weight of the song. The closer of the album “Oklahoman Son” ends how the album begins: Bryan and his guitar. An emotional portrait of Bryan that ends the album with the suggestion of a new chapter of Bryan’s career. Something bigger than his initial success ever anticipated. 

 Not once does Zach Bryan “phone it in” on this album. He is certainly showing audiences what Country music can look like in 2023 after a more dysfunctional past decade, and for this recent resurgence in popularity in the genre, Bryan finds his stride by writing songs that mean something to him first, and his memorable compositions, hooks, and performances that resonate with his audience second. If you’re looking for a Country album that has the accessibility of other music you might prefer, this is for you. 

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