A mess of competing signals and bad politics mar what could have been a blandly competent country rock experience.
This album would be less infuriating if it wasn’t so competent. Don’t get me wrong -- the album is terrible, with insidious politics, awkward writing, wild stylistic variations and an unsettled quality throughout, but they don’t half-ass, which kind of makes the whole thing worse. The album is called Jekyll and Hyde, so there is an expectation of that kind of variation -- but that’s a binary that switches off and on.
Guest stars are a good way of providing an example. They have a song called "Under the Mango Tree" with an up-and-comer named Sara Bareilles, who has had a pop career since 2007. Bareilles is inspirational in subject, with a strong and intriguing voice. The song that they sing together is a feather light, cod tropical piece of escapism. You have heard it done by everyone who wanted to be Jimmy Buffett, a category I would never put her in.
The song is pleasant, and so does less damage than the other main duet here. It features Chris Cornell. This makes a small amount of sense. The band recorded an EP with Dave Grohl a couple of years ago. It also fits into the genre’s current usurping of ‘70s meat and potatoes rock, has entered this phase where they recognize its connections to other genres. There is something fascinating in how Eric Church interplays the formal connections between Nirvana and Foghat. That precision is played with when Zac Brown are at their best. Youtube seach them covering "War Pigs". It’s smart, it’s talented, and it has weight that their song “Heavy Has the Head” lacks completely. With it’s quoting of late ‘70s hard rock (literally and musically), one returns back to Church’s The Outsiders, and sees Brown playing this awkward drag with a band that was like the tenth best of their local scene twenty years ago.
It might be easier to explain why I loathe this album, if I didn’t rest on the music, which provides enough for mild annoyance but not enough for hatred. The lyrics are absurd, and are often problematic to women. The Zac Brown Band loves the virgin/whore dialectic.
In the first song, they sing about a woman in a red dress who is a literal demonic temptress. In the second song, they talk about a woman who functions as a wife, and who (in the words of Beyonce), woke up flawless. That song, “You Make Loving You Easy”, has a chorus that plays with gospel, and is genuinely pleasurable to listen to. It’s smooth enough that the listener can’t trust what the band selling. (It is not the most misogynist of the possible songs--that would be "I’ll Always be Your Man (Song for Daughter)" -- which in a goopy ballad tells his new born girl that he will own her until her husband does. It would be more offensive if the child was a fully formed character, as opposed to a cliched trope. None of the women here reach that).
This not trusting continues -- when they sing, in something vaguely Mumford, they claim not to be looking for money or fame (which is always disingenuous), but in the most awkward attempt at pantheism, claim that “Jesus preached the golden rule / Buddha taught it too / Gandhi said eye for an eye / Makes the whole world go blind”. He goes onto a kind of universalism that seems less and less of a theological working out, but a cynical attempt at feel-good politics.
The cynicism reaches the nadir with a cover of Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues”. A moving story song that functions as a vicious swipe against the last Iraq war, and the imperial American ambitions -- the whole thing would be in the worst taste with how it adds tasteful piano and girl group vocals. But then, there is a middle section that adds "Taps", which destroys the song, making it an exercise in naked patriotism, as opposed to an ambiguous statement on the failures of war. Isbell sings: “But there's red, white, and blue in the rafters / and there's silent old men from the corps / What did they say when they shipped you away / to fight somebody's Hollywood war?”. Zac Brown sings, “What did they say when they shipped you away / to give it all in some God awful war.”
"Dress Blues" sticks out midway through an album that does not earn its gravitas, and then does not return. What follows is a passel of songs about romantic entitlement. There is more of the guitar vamping on "Junkyard", with a voice swung into a half attempted growl. But then there is a discussion of erotic nostalgia on "Young and Wild" that would be embarrassing for either Kip Moore or Kenny Chesney to attempt.
That’s the key for me. I could imagine some of the work being done by better artists. Some of the work has been done by better artists. Some of the songs are awkwardly written, but none of them are really terribly sung or terribly constructed. It took me weeks, and maybe a dozen listens to work through how I felt about this album. It gets under your skin, and you begin to realize that it is less dangerous than boring. That doesn't mean it isn't one of the worst albums of the year.