Album Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘The Owl’

The short version: While ‘The Owl’ isn’t quite as disastrous as surrounding discourse may imply, it still shows the Zac Brown Band members working well beneath their talent levels, resulting in anything but an authentic musical evolution.

  • Favorite tracks: “Leaving Love Behind,” “Someone I Used To Know,” “Already On Fire,” “The Woods”
  • Least favorite tracks: “God Given,” “OMW,” “Warrior”
  • Rating: 4/10

The long version: Here’s a fun question to start things off: when did you stop caring about the Zac Brown Band (if at all)?

As pretentious as that question sounds, if you take a look at the band’s output over the latter half of the decade, front man Zac Brown seems to be doing everything in his power to alienate, well … pretty much everyone. From 2015’s Jekyll + Hyde, which threw every style into a blender and only rarely worked, to 2017’s Welcome Home which was a half-assed “return to form,” at best, to their newest project, The Owl, which was slated to have collaborations with everyone from Skrillex to Max Martin, there’s plenty of moments where one could have jumped ship.

Of course, that’s just a discussion on their actual musical output. While Brown may have earned favor by (rightly) calling out Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kinda Night” for its asinine lyrical content years ago, by now, he’s got at least a handful of songs that are worse than that song. And then there’s Brown’s weird obsession with EDM and dance music, causing him to create a separate side project in Sir Rosevelt, only to service singles from that outfit to country radio anyway.

To give the Zac Brown Band credit, however, they’ve never labeled themselves as a country band; but that honesty still rings as deceitful when they choose to release songs like “Beautiful Drug” to country radio and reap the benefits of the country music establishment. Even a simple, meaningless award makes Brown feel like he’s big enough to offer a righteous speech condemning his haters (spoilers: it’s not righteous). Simply put, the background surrounding any of their projects from now on is going to be a total mess, and whether Brown wants to try country one day, rock the next day, pop the day after or EDM afterward is all a big mystery.

Before diving into The Owl, though, it’s worth mentioning that the issue doesn’t center around Brown wanting to experiment with other genres; the problem is that there’s no consistency to it. Even on 2015’s Jekyll + Hyde, for example, creating tonal whiplash by going from a big band-sounding song in “Mango Tree” to hard rock in “Heavy Is The Head” isn’t exactly appealing. If the issue was with the band’s experimentation, this conversation would have started with 2012’s Uncaged, which saw the band fuse elements of southern rock, R&B, and funk into their own natural sound, or 2014’s The Grohl Sessions, where, true to the name, they recruited Dave Grohl for production duties. Ultimately, the issue is that the band started as one thing, branched off of it in a successful way by not forgetting where their roots were, and then tossed all of that aside and expected their fans to stay onboard, and that’s before we even broach issues of a drop in quality, but that’s neither here nor there.

But with all of that in mind, The Owl admittedly isn’t quite as bad as the surrounding discourse may imply. Call it the benefit of severely low expectations, or blame it on a lack of shock value for me, personally, after hearing the similar-sounding Sir Rosevelt project from a few years ago, but as pure music, The Owl isn’t nearly the worst album I’ve ever heard. It is, however, an appalling drop in quality for a band that can do so much better, and while there’s more moments that work here than expected, this album will likely go down in history as the band’s worst offering.

The tricky part this time around, though, is knowing where to assign the blame. The easy answer is to point straight to Brown himself, but this is a legitimate offering from the full band where they lean more heavily into EDM and rap than ever before. But it’s also telling that, for the most part, this doesn’t feel like a Zac Brown Band project in just the traditional sense; more often than not, the band members feel like glorified session players on The Owl.

On that note, the easiest place to first approach this album is in its production and instrumentation, which is mostly terrible across the board. Sure, there’s an admittedly decent groove driving “The Woods,” especially when, underneath the heavy, thumping bass, Jimmy Di Martini’s fiddle pickups are right there to provide some type of organic melodic foundation; but otherwise, there’s “Need This,” where the keyboard sounds like one of the default options when making a track in GarageBand, or “Me and the Boys In The Band” or “Shoofly Pie,” where the band try to lean into grimier southern rock, yet are left defeated by polished tones and underweight grooves. And when the band have preformed odes to their musicality in the form of longer, better instrumentals on past projects, it just makes “Me and the Boys In The Band” feel disingenuous and ironic placed on this album, especially when the band barely have anything to actually do here.

What’s most surprising is that, given how much natural charisma the band usually have with each other, you’d think they could actually make compelling, catchy pop music, even if it’s not the average country fan’s cup of tea. Instead, the synthetic elements on “OMW,” “Finish What We Started” and “Warrior” are way too gimmicky, blocky, murky and overwrought to sound anything except stiff and cold, with “OMW” being the worst offender for those bad-sounding ‘80s riffs. It’s understandable why they might try to give “Warrior” a darker, anthemic swell to highlight the terror this soldier goes through, but between the production feeling too overbearing and that horrible distorted vocal on the bridge, I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but Justin Moore preformed this exact song way better this year.

But for as scattershot as this album gets, the band is too naturally talented to screw things up completely. The darker surf riffs and jaunty background keys behind “Already On Fire” actually add a killer momentum to the track, and while this is a note on lyrical content, it’s a moment where Brown adopts a younger perspective and actually manages to pull it off well, at least until the bridge is ruined in the same way as “Warrior.” “Leaving Love Behind” features everything that’s great about the band, ultimately serving as a sad reminder of what could still be, but still potent, nonetheless. The beautiful, imitate production is the one moment the album is allowed to breathe, where the piano cuts through with beauty and grace, and the added violin on the bridge drives home the only moment of real warmth on this project. In a word, it deserves better than being on this album, because this is the best side of the band.

Of course, it’s also a moment where I’ll repeat an earlier sentiment: this feels like (another) Brown solo project, and that largely extends toward his duties as a vocalist on this album. Brown hasn’t ever captivated audiences with his technical abilities, by any means, but he’s always had a knack for grounded sincerity and passionate deliveries to make just about anything feel much more sweeping than it really is (“Colder Weather,” for example).

Here, though, all of those good elements are mostly tossed aside, save for “Leaving Love Behind” and “Someone I Used To Know.” Brown and Brandi Carlile have no chemistry on “Finish What We Started,” a track where you can tell Carlile only contributed her vocals and not her writing. “Warrior” also manages to oversell a weak track.

But as for why this feels like a Brown solo project, the reasons come down to the framing, mostly in how Brown is no longer the weary journeyman looking to tell stories, but rather the father having a midlife crisis as he tries to figure out how to appeal to a younger crowd … for whatever reason. If you gave “OMW” to Nashville’s latest generic male artist, not much would change, hence why it’s particular embarrassing to hear Brown explain a fairly well-known acronym and pretend he’s 20 years old again. And when the vocal effects kick in, not only does the album try (and fail) to be dark and edgy on “Warrior” and “Already On Fire,” but it also makes Brown come across as way more creepy on “God Given” than he really should be, given the lyrical content.

Sure, “Someone I Used To Know” hints at a dark background surrounding the formation of this album, especially when the background of this album, on top of everything else, extends toward issues in Brown’s personal life, but it sort of belies the point to hear real pain and emotion come with his attempts at rapping on “Need This” or “God Given.”

On the note of content, though, this is Brown’s story, more or less. I’d call the framing of the thematic core almost purposeful, given Brown’s issues over the past few years, but that would assume it leads to anything substantive by its end. Sure, “Leaving Love Behind” is a fantastic song, but it’s the only moment that shows a real outpouring of emotion from Brown and glimpse into his divorce.

But right from the first track, “The Woods,” Brown essentially asks his audience to let him be as scatterbrained as he is today, an unhealthy sign of what’s to come, unfortunately. If anything, this album should cast more sympathy for Brown over outright condemnation, but that also comes with the caveat that we feel secondary embarrassment for Brown rather than embrace his pain with him.

Even if I do feel bad for Brown, though, the second-hand embarrassment comes from the awfulness of “God Given” and “OMW,” the former track being the worst thing to ever come from the band, full stop. Given how late I am to covering this album (at least compared to other critics), I’m not sure what I can say that hasn’t been said already, but I do know this, Brown can’t rap, though I guess it’s admirable he’s willing to tank his and his band’s entire career to explore this passion.

Actually, that’s a good way to end this review, by questioning if this was all worth it in the end. Not to disparage Brown’s passion and excitement for electronic music, but at the end of the day, this is still a project serviced to the country music establishment. Even if I do like “Someone I Used To Know” for what it is, it doesn’t belong as a single on country radio, nor does anything on The Owl. And considering that song only peaked within the top 40 at radio after “Roots,” which also only managed to scrape a top 40 peak, one has to wonder if the Zac Brown Band’s country career isn’t over anyway. Sir Rosevelt isn’t taking off, and considering the other band members barely feel essential to this project, I’m placing the blame on Brown, especially now that there isn’t anywhere else to turn. Again, as much as I want to be harsher toward the band and this project, I can’t help but just feel bad and look on with sorrow, especially as an old fan of the band. But maybe this is a good time to acknowledge a good run and walk away before they turn around and deliver another mediocre “return to form” in a few years, because if you really want to hear the band at their most innovative … hell, Uncaged and The Grohl Sessions are already out there.

(Light 4/10)

Buy or stream the album. (why?)

The good:

The very, very bad:

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