Album Discussion: Zach Bryan – ‘American Heartbreak’

American Heartbreak

The concept of the “viral songwriter” is still a relatively new concept in country music, and we’re still in uncharted territory with what constitutes one or what effects one can have on the industry. And I’m not referring to acts like Sturgill Simpson or Jason Isbell – acts that could run parallel to what the mainstream offered but never wanted to play within that same range or even attained quite the success of those A-list acts, even if the unprecedented success of both artists as well as plenty others was definitely worth the notice. No, I’m referring to the acts that can cut through all of the noise to transcend into their own territory, where the support of the industry still very much helps, but isn’t necessarily needed to fuel that interest.

And I have to admit, while I very much liked Zach Bryan’s self-released DeAnn in 2019, I certainly didn’t predict where he’d end up three years later; I’m not sure anyone did. Granted, his songwriting entered the sort of dark, confessional territory that even his contemporaries didn’t dare showcase so consistently, or go to the lengths he would and did. If anything, though, that seems like it would have acted as more of a deterrent – an excuse to label it as inaccessible, which is the greatest paradoxical strength and hindrance of the independent side of things in country music. His characters were socially anxious people desperate to connect with those they love most but unable to figure out how to do so.

And, obviously, it’s that last element that’s connected far more than I think many would have imagined back then, enough to where Bryan’s journey since has been something of a roller coaster, full of follow-up self-released projects in Elisabeth and the Quiet, Heavy Dreams EP (the latter of which I held as his best), still raw and unbridled in presentation with nary a publicist nor record label to help promote them, and only little added production compared to that debut. And I think that’s where the wedge has been cut between his cult-like following and those still trying to figure out what all the rage is about with this guy, because that acoustic minimalist style is something that can be very hit-or-miss in how it connects from one listener to another – and it’s not like we’re in short supply of great songwriters working within or adjacent to independent country that write beautifully poetic songs lacking in the actual presentation.

As for me, I’ve went back and forth on Bryan since DeAnn. Elisabeth felt overlong and didn’t offer the expansion in style I had hoped for from DeAnn, but Quiet, Heavy Dreams sure as hell did. Then, he announced a 34-song album to release this year, and I admit part of me didn’t even want to approach American Heartbreak on concept alone. And then the unexpected happen – he actually landed a chart hit on Billboard’s Hot 100 through “Something in the Orange,” and it suddenly clicked that this was a success story worth paying attention to … in both 2019 and today. This isn’t just the independent singer-songwriter making waves – this is the new superstar that can dethrone Morgan Wallen from the top spot on the album chart with just his songs alone. And since he did sign to Warner and worked with Eddie Spear for his newest project – a producer whose credits include work with Cody Jinks, Lori McKenna, Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile, and more – come hell or high water, even despite that absurd runtime, this was worth the deeper dive.

Of course, that wedge I mentioned earlier is going to be the driving factor in determining who will even want to approach this at all, because to those on the outside, it’s nonsensical – maybe even arrogant – to release a project that runs as long as a 50th anniversary special, enough to where they won’t even want to give this a chance. And to those that are diehard fans, this will still somehow seem like too short of a listen – pure fan-service in the best (and worst) possible way. And who’s to say whose right or wrong either way? But for those like me that are still removed from the hype and always heard potential in Bryan but wanted to hear more out of him, this hits a weird spot. It’s a project where he refines his reflective writing, but now with a more robust presentation that can really bring these songs to their fullest potential and further diversify his range. And I think the weirdest part of it all is that, while you’ll definitely feel those 2 hours, American Heartbreak is remarkably well-paced and diverse as a whole, enough to where I’m comfortable calling it his best yet.

Granted, where the hell to even start with this behemoth is the trickiest part of all for this discussion, because it’s quietly deceptive in what it’s aiming for, and I think part of that extends to opening with “Late July” – the sort of underproduced, homespun song one would have expected to hear on those earlier albums, before transitioning into something similar with “Something in the Orange,” only with traces of harmonica and greater depth of atmosphere to highlight the contrast of what good production can add to a song. And while the songwriting will always take the lead discussion for Bryan’s work, it really is great to hear these tracks reach their fullest potential, especially in the moments I didn’t expect. I think you’ll hear that early on in the ‘80s-inspired bright rollick of guitar tones on “Heavy Eyes” that’s elevated even further by that galloping groove; there’s a surprising amount of times where the instrumentation gets to run wild here, and I think it helps greatly in not letting this album drag as much as it could (and really, should) have.

Of course, the other lead discussion with Bryan’s work comes through in Bryan himself. He’s never been a great singer and that holds true here, especially when his flow seems wonky on tracks like “Sober Side of Sorry” and “Poems and Closing Time” – the latter a track I otherwise really like for how groove-heavy those acoustics get – or just tackles something that feels way out of his element, like the honky-tonk, hell-raiser-inspired “Whiskey Fever” that, surprisingly enough, is the only true dud here for me. But it’s that raw, unbridled passion that’s always properly centered that feels essential to, in essence, telling his own stories or telling other stories through characters, like the Alzheimer’s-centered “Billy Stay.” Yeah, the album is all overly ambitious and messy in its concept, but I think that’s part of the point in pointing to Bryan as an artist, the sort of act that’s always relied on instinct and wants to, at least through song, deal with his own messy issues one song at a time, no matter how long it takes and whether it’s to his benefit or detriment.

If anything, though, I think that also feeds into a lot of the content and thematic arc, where even though Bryan once again treads into some very dark territory that can often feel hardscrabble in its callbacks to old vices reminiscent of, say, Jason Isbell or American Aquarium, I think this is the first time he allows a light to shine to maybe find inner peace and clarity – find that next step after all on the best project to try and do so, in other words. And yeah, it goes without saying that he’s a potent writer, and that the great individual one-liners could take up a section of this review on their own. But I’ve always tried to focus more on what makes Bryan’s brand unique, and it comes not just in the willingness to confront some very dark truths about himself like the doubt of self-worth in the wake of an ending relationship on “Something in the Orange,” but also in the very hardscrabbled, middle-of-America-centered framing that always makes his stories and experiences feel lived-in and relatable.

Which, granted, makes the title of the album a bit on-the-nose, but for as absurdly long as this project runs, there is a natural progression to this album that takes it time to play out and unfold, where the length feels more like a way to capture each individual snapshot of that experience step-by-step, and where even the tracks here that scan mostly as retreads of similar, better songs feel essential, if only for how they capture the same general mood from different, more older perspectives. It’s like a book – chances are this isn’t something most listeners are going to digest in one sitting, but it still tells that complete story in its own way that feels more ambitious than self-serving. And it still honors the album concept by feeling complete in sequencing and easy to return to at any point.

And I admit, there’s something triumphant here in tracing that arc of sifting through that self-contained anxiousness from a bigger platform now and move toward something better, where a track like “Darling” spells it out clearly that Bryan really isn’t comfortable with stardom and is still just working toward ensuring that he makes time for the people who mean the most to him, which makes the callbacks to his late mother in “She’s Alright,” the reflective “Heavy Eyes,” or even the offered self-reassurance from one friend to another who understands the crushing weight of self-doubt on “Oklahoma City” really potent. Granted, I could also do without the self-gloating and authenticity fetishism that Bryan also likes to dabble with in making it on his own terms on tracks like “Highway Boys” and “If She Wants a Cowboy,” even if the latter track is absolutely hilarious in its not-so-subtle takedowns of what Nashville culture has become; it’s the sort of track that’s been overdone in more overly serious manners before, but I just love the not-so-subtle, wry piss-and-vinegar tone here .

But it’s also the satirical humor of that track that can, admittedly, feel out of place for the album as a whole, even if it helps in adding diversity to the overall tone of the project, as does the rodeo-themed “Open the Gate” that feels more like his attempt at a Garth Brooks B-side than anything else. Even for as potent of a writer as Bryan can be at his best, I’ll admit that a track like “High Beams” scans as somewhat conventional compared to other tracks here. And it’s why for as effective as I think this album ultimately is, it’s not without its faults or weaker points that could have been cut to make way for a leaner experience without sacrificing the sanctity of the journey.

Because at the album’s best, you’ll get songs like “The Outskirts,” which cascades off its beautiful liquid sheen and wistfulness for a moment with the bones of a heartland rock song in its wide-eyed dreamer mentality. And you’ll get the deeper strumming that adds a ton of potent weight and muscle to “Cold, Damn Vampires” that plays into the album’s sense of self-doubt even in spite of the accomplishments thus far. And you’ll even get a fantastic one-two punch of “Tishomingo” and “She’s Alright,” the former carried by that steel guitar crescendo on the bridge in its journey to return home to something familiar … only to go back out on the road again and know that for every person left behind back home, one of the ones loved along the way and arguably the most important one is looking down on “She’s Alright,” where the echoed fragments just add a tremendous wonder to that starry-eyed yet bittersweet feeling. It’s why I even respect the “You Are My Sunshine” cover as a needed comedown right afterward, a song with a much different context than what comes before it, but one that still feels like something familiar and needed to return to normal for Bryan here.

And that’s the thing – for as either hard-charged or heavy as this album can be in its first half, by the time you get to tracks like “The Good I’ll Do” or “Someday (Maggie’s),” the album shifts to something … gentler – more assured and confident, if anything, where he rekindles those connections with lost friends, takes each day in stride, and even finds the courage to maybe forge his own destiny with a clear step forward, and maybe even have a little fun along the way, as shown by “If She Wants a Cowboy.” It’s a progression from heavy eyes and reckless younger years to growing up and maturing that feels natural and, yes, messy; perhaps as it should. But by the time you reach the end and you hear absolutely beautiful self-reflections that actually feel like Bryan trying to take that next step forward for himself in the ethereal shimmer of “Someday (Maggie’s),” the thankful “Corinthians,” the hopeful “Blue,” or even a surprisingly excellent closing poem in “This Road I Know,” it’s part of why the overall journey feels worth it … no matter how long it takes to finish it.

I won’t say this is among my absolute favorite albums of the year – it’s not so much the length but the filler that can weigh it down at times – but for as sprawling and messy as this album is, it’s also far more effective in hitting its mark than one may think. And between the genuine highlights that far outweigh the negative or even middling aspects, the expansion in production that allows each song to breathe and retains Bryan’s raw delivery, and the general hopefulness that shows where Bryan could go next, American Heartbreak feels like an album for the year and for him, in more ways than one – a needed overcoming of a hurdle that’s been there since the beginning. The toughest part is taking that journey with him, because like with life itself, it’s an imperfect ones at times. But it’s those moments of beauty that characterize it way more, so … give it a chance. You may be surprised.

(8/10)

  • Favorite tracks: “Heavy Eyes,” “The Outskirts,” “Cold Damn Vampires,” “Tishomingo,” “She’s Alright,” “Oklahoma City,” “Billy Stay,” “Sober Side of Sorry,” “Poems & Closing Time,” “If She Wants a Cowboy,” “Half Grown,” “Blue,” “This Road I Know”
  • Least favorite track: “Whiskey Fever”

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