Coming off of their last album, I’m surprised we have another project from the Zac Brown Band at all, and I’m even more surprised we got it as soon as we did.
And I don’t think I need to go into further detail why. The band’s 2019 album, The Owl, should have tanked their entire career – a horribly executed cacophony of ideas in sound and lyrical themes that not only was the furthest thing imaginable from what one would expect from a Zac Brown Band album, but also just terrible no matter how you sliced it, not helped by the titular lead singer doubling down on it a week after with a solo project that was only slightly less terrible. And as one of the nicer critics toward that album – if you consider a 4/10 score “nice” – I admit I should have gone even further with my rage against it just like everyone else did. Because if there’s a reason I wanted to untangle whatever the follow-up would be, it’s that I still remember those first three albums; four, if you want to count The Grohl Sessions. Uncaged was one of my favorite albums of the entire 2010s.
And I’ve just always been left wishing that the band – no, scratch that, Brown himself – would understand that the disconnect between fan reception and what they choose to embrace doesn’t stem from their experimentation, but rather their execution of it and how they’ve slipped away from the core of what’s made them so great. The package in which they choose to sell it has never been the issue.
But the difference between, say, Jekyll + Hyde and The Owl is that the former felt like a passionate yet still messy embrace of new ideas while the latter felt like an implosion fueled by Brown’s own hubris, and when going back and realizing how much his divorce shaped that album … well, it’s telling of how much they’ve tried to rebound from it ever since – just saying. So while I understand why other hardcore fans have been excited to watch this band slightly return to their roots ever since the release of “The Man Who Loves You The Most” last year, I was skeptical. We’ve been down this road before with a little rebound project from them in 2017 called Welcome Home, a half-hearted attempt to try and placate fans and further the wrong assumption that they only want straightforward neotraditional country music out of this band. It didn’t help that “Same Boat” was a pretty terrible attempt at recreating “Chicken Fried” or that “Old Love Song” copied the newer trend of artists creating songs by name-dropping other ones. I was really ready to actually philosophically dislike this more than The Owl on principle alone, especially now that “Same Boat” has given them a second (or really, third) chance at radio that they probably didn’t deserve.
Yet now with The Comeback … well, despite the obvious joke of how that title refers more to the band’s career than the pandemic as intended, I’ll say it: it’s their best album since Uncaged or The Grohl Sessions, but I’m also going to tap the breaks on calling it a complete return to form, and drilling into why is a tad more complicated. It’s good, it’s a lot of fun and even genuinely great in spots, but there are still inconsistencies across the board, and we will have to address those.
What’s not complicated, however, is explaining where this album goes right compared to The Owl, and even drawing a line between those two albums doesn’t quite feel accurate. I mean, this is automatically better simply based on who is and isn’t included on production or writing credits compared to that album – it’s that easy. No, the more appropriate comparison is likely to Welcome Home, because if the band was looking to win back over fans alienated by that last project, this is a surprisingly valiant effort. Yet it’s not like that album in its overall scope and approach. Whereas that album played to very safe but unexciting neotraditional tones that basically cribbed directly from their earlier material to the point of being damn-near identical, The Comeback isn’t afraid to broaden its horizons and incorporate elements of rock or soul into the mix in ways that actually flatter this band. And that only further highlights my earlier point of how most fans won’t care which lane this band chooses to embrace so long as the execution sticks the landing and they retain what makes them so compelling on a base level. Which, for the record, is an emphasis on strong, warm harmonies, passionately beautiful lyricism that can either sound powerful or just make you smile, and an overall purity in the approach that’s technically stellar by sounding like a true band experience rather than a Brown solo project.
That’s not to say this album doesn’t have its derivative moments. I already mentioned “Same Boat,” but I’ve also seen people mention similarities between “Old Palomino” and Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” of all songs, as well as ones between “Don’t Let Your Heart” and the band’s own “Toes.” Granted, I still like those songs, mostly because they nail the basics well. And when the band brings in Marcus King to shred on the explosively bluesy “Stubborn Pride” or has Gregory Porter opposite Brown on “Closer to Home” for something else within that lane yet more low-key and soulful, it’s a really good fit. And it’s not even just their guest stars that shine. Between the absolutely riotous interplay on the faster-paced “Fun Having Fun” – which in and of itself is reminiscent of the band’s other goofier cuts in this lane like “Sic ‘Em On A Chicken” or “Whiskey’s Gone” – or, again, those absolutely beautiful harmonies that get to shine mostly throughout but especially on “Love and Sunsets” and “Don’t Let Your Heart,” you could argue that this is the most the most the Zac Brown Band have sounded like the Zac Brown “Band” in years.
If I were to highlight issues with the vocals, though, it’d come in some of the backing vocals feeling a little too oddly blended within the mix at certain points on “Slow Burn” and the title track. And for as much as I hate to say it, despite this being a welcome return to form for the entire band, Brown himself has picked up a few rougher edges over the years and lacks the same immediate warmth he once had to really sell these tracks. It’s never necessarily an issue, but it does mean that certain tracks that place more of an emphasis on his performance in “Old Love Song,” “Us Against the World” or, again, “Same Boat” all feel really clunky as a whole.
Circling back to the instrumentation and production, though, again, while this is still cribbing from the band’s earlier and better material, there’s an upbeat swell to this project that’s hard to dislike. And when you blend in those aforementioned harmonies alongside huge choruses and hooks for “Slow Burn,” “Stubborn Pride,” “Fun Having Fun,” the title track, “Paradise Lost On Me” or especially those final three tracks, it’s a really likable listen that managed to only grow on me more with every repeat visit. Yes, some of it’s oversold and borderline cheesy, but the earnestness and passion behind it has always been an ironically welcome asset for this band, and I’m so happy to see it make a return. Heck, the only moment to really drill into moodier content is “Any Day Now,” which is no “Goodbye In Her Eyes” or “Jolene” as far as breakup songs go, but between the glistening textures, moody swell and all-around solid wordplay, it’s still a highlight and probably makes for my favorite song here next to “Fun Having Fun.”
And you’d think that bringing back in some of their old co-writers or even featuring Luke Combs on a few songs would help, but I have to admit I’m a bit more torn on that. Yes, it’s good to see Wyatt Durrette’s name again within the credits, especially on one of the band’s better island-inspired cuts in “Paradise Lost On Me” or “Don’t Let Your Heart,” but there’s also “GA Clay,” which is an overblown attempt at rural pride pandering that fee’s more appropriate for Jason Aldean than this band – shame, too, given that I actually like the solos toward the end. And then there’s the Luke Combs-co-written “Out in the Middle,” which sounds like a bad bro-country reject from 2014, especially in the city-versus-country framing that’s played-out and was never that good to begin with.
Really, outside of “Slow Burn,” I’d argue this album doesn’t find its true footing until “Stubborn Pride,” and aside from a few moments like the aforementioned “Old Love Song” or the title track – that, while admirable in its approach as a pandemic song, is a song that goes a little too far in its approach – this album finds a good footing in its second half. It’s mostly playing to very loose and upbeat themes as a result of the pandemic of finding personal peace and solace that don’t give me much to work with, but it’s rarely ever bad, and it’s good to hear Brown specifically in better
(and more coherent) spirit than before. This band has always played to broad strokes in their approach to lyrics and themes, and while I’d struggle to ever really call the writing excellent, sincere gratitude is a much better fit for this band than anything off of The Owl. And starting with “Any Day Now” and excluding “GA Clay,” this album arguably ends with its best moments, especially that final three-song run.
But for as much as I want to end on a positive note, I know that I have to cautiously acknowledge that this is likely less of a fully formed comeback than it is a happy accident, and there’s absolutely no telling where it all goes from here. But while this isn’t the band’s best album and shows more than a few rougher edges of an act starting to age, I’d rather praise quality when I hear it, especially when this is the most inspired the band has sounded in years. Let’s just hope that maybe this time of reflection and understanding has brought Brown at least a little more back down to Earth. For as much as he likely doesn’t want to hear this, country music would be better for it.
- Favorite tracks: “Any Day Now,” “Fun Having Fun,” “Stubborn Pride” (feat. Marcus King), “Closer to Heaven” (feat. Gregory Porter), “Paradise Lost On Me,” “Love and Sunsets”
- Least favorite track: “Out in the Middle”