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Album Reviews

Zach Bryan Delivers Late-Night Conversations Destined to Fill Arenas

The country superstar’s self-titled new album mixes hooky Nashville storytelling with Americana realism

Last year the Oklahoma-born singer-songwriter Zach Bryan had one of pop’s biggest left-field hits with “Something in the Orange,” a portrait of regret that was as notable for its bare-bones instrumentation as it was for Bryan’s haunted vocal performance. Since that track peaked at Number 10 on the Hot 100, the 27-year-old Navy veteran has carved out a singular place in modern popular music, blending Music Row’s hooky storytelling with heartland rock’s unvarnished portraits of modern Americana and insurgent country’s back-to-basics ideals.

On the kinetic roadhouse rave-up “Overtime,” Bryan sings, “I want to stay humble, and I want to stay hungry.” Zach Bryan, the follow-up to last year’s “Orange”-containing double album American Heartbreak, shows how he’s doing exactly that; his chart successes are only causing him to fully explore the nuances of what makes his music so arresting. Its 16 tracks — which include collaborations with country-pop troubadour Kacey Musgraves and folkies the Lumineers — feel as immediate as a late-night conversation, with Bryan’s skill at penning lyrics that are concise yet fleshed-out matched by his voice’s ability to wring out the full emotional spectrum from a syllable or two.    


Bryan also produced the album, and his innate knowledge of what makes his songs work means that they’re given space to not only breathe, but to seethe and yearn. Stripped-down songs like the lovingly appreciative “Smaller Acts” (where Bryan’s voice is accompanied by chirps that make one wonder if it was recorded on a moonlit porch) and the stock-taking “Oklahoman Son” make those moments when he does get expansive hit harder. Its centerpiece is the two-song suite “Jake’s Piano – Long Island,” which opens with a minimally framed apology for past transgressions, Bryan wailing, “The best parts of you are here, but you’re still gone” as an organ whirs in the background. The second half blooms into a slippery full-band jam with weeping steel guitars, Bryan’s breaking voice proving the gravity of his declaration “my mind ain’t well and I just can’t tell you why.” Its self-lacerating melancholia never dips into self-indulgence, instead digging into the shades of gray that define a person’s bleakest days. 

Elsewhere, the collaboration with the soul-Americana duo The War and Treaty, “Hey Driver,” is a rueful yet optimistic open-road hymn; Bryan’s voice and the spirited yelps of War and Treaty vocalist Michael Trotter Jr. braid together in a fashion that at times feels triumphantly hopeful, finding a spark in the notion that some other place might help them shake off “the ways of this old world.” Zach Bryan’s up-close realism means that this album is hardly an escape from those cruelties, but Bryan’s careful presentation of his obvious songwriting talents makes it a gripping listen.  

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