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Maxim Mower and David Dawson
Zac Brown Band is like gateway country. They're the ones that pull you in and turn you into a fan, selling you on that country dream – the sunsets and the sweet life. It’s safe to say, therefore, that expectations were high for their new record, especially as the majority of it had already come out on the brilliant ‘Fun Havin Fun’ and ‘Slow Burn’ EPs. Both EPs had offered slightly different takes and emotions so I was interested to see how the album would come together. Their previous offering The Owl was actually a strong showing, despite it being much maligned for its pop and EDM influences, but even so, it’s exciting to see Zac’s group returning to their Country roots on The Comeback.
The album opens on a high with a series of stadium-rock tinged tracks. ‘Slow Burn’ launches straight into what sounds like the climax of a Coldplay song before peeling back again for the verse. In typical Zac Brown style it’s an anthem of reminiscing; summer, the radio and young love are all at the centre of this emotive opening. The song is about how great memories don’t fade. It somehow manages to be happy and sad at the same time - I’m not sure how they achieved it but nevertheless, a fantastic song.
‘Out in the Middle’ is a more rugged stand-out, and Luke Combs’ co-writing influence is evident throughout. The song again focuses on the idealised country lifestyle with an emphasis on cutting loose, suggesting that the week is for hard work but when Friday evening comes things really do get out of hand. The song also has an underlying pride and what feels like a defence of the country life, with references to city folk and people having dreams of a concrete world, before Zac proudly bellows, “Out in the middle of nowhere, that’s where I want to be”. It’s a solid start, without yet reaching the sonic heights that ZBB fans had grown accustomed to before they began experimenting with their sound.
‘Same Boat’ is a great song. It’s ZBB at their playful, sun-soaked best, and runs more in the vein of the band’s light-hearted hits like ‘Toes’ and ‘Chicken Fried’. It also carries a great message through some great lyrics. A short description doesn’t do it much justice, but essentially the song suggests that really we aren’t too different. We all get heartbroken, lose money, grow old and have been hurt from time to time. It’s a call for empathy, with lines about walking a mile in other people’s shoes and respectfully agreeing to disagree on certain things. This is just one of those classic country songs that makes you dream of a simpler world and it’s no surprise that this has been the most successful single from the record, with its ‘come together’ message and addictive, uplifting hook.
‘Fun Having Fun’ is incredible. A song with two ‘funs’ in the title gives itself a lot to live up to but it has to be one of the best songs of 2021, let alone the album. The track moves into a distinctively bluegrass style with a beat that seems to move at a million miles an hour accompanied by a banjo and fiddle. The song contains stories about a young Zac getting into all sorts of trouble by driving and crashing his grandad’s truck when he was just eight - yes, eight - and inadvertently setting fire to the hayloft. It’s a great listen with wacky sound effects and a whimsical delivery, which involves Zac impersonating various characters in the stories and a carefree guitar that races away - quite literally, during the chase scene - and takes on a life of its own. The chorus and the message of the song are what I love the most. When confronted at the end of his mischiefs, Zac proclaims, “It’s fun having fun, there’s only so many trips around the sun”. The song takes an almost nihilistic stance that we are only here for a short time and a life without mistakes is boring. The title couldn’t be more appropriate, because this is Fun with a capital ‘F’, and Zac presents a convincing case in favour of this song’s cri-de-coeur that “the worst decisions make the best stories”. The song beautifully portrays the idea that we should stop worrying so much about the future and just enjoy the time we have, or you might miss the fun of blowing stuff up! If you want an easy laugh, a song to tap your foot too and a reason to adopt a more laissez-faire attitude to life make sure you give this track a listen.
BB’s jovial, carpe-diem songs often gain the most attention, and arguably rightly so, because few other artists can match their strength in this department. But never underestimate a classic ZBB sad song - the likes of ‘Highway 20 Ride’, ‘Colder Weather’ and ‘My Old Man’ are, in my opinion, some of the most moving and beautiful Country songs out there. The bluer side of The Comeback is found in tracks such as ‘Wild Palomino’, the sparse production of which really allows Zac’s vocals to shine - the second verse is virtually a cappella, making it all the more touching - and ‘Any Day Now’, which finds Zac in a familiar role as the ramblin’ man trying to make amends with a lost love. The title track also fits the bill. The song opens by focusing on a world stricken by the pandemic before hanging hopes on a positive future, with a ‘making lemonade from lemons’ sort of feel. The gospel choir really makes it for me and you can’t help but feel positive as they accompany Zac singing about making a better world for the next generations. I have to admit though, putting my negativity hat on, that this song was sort of unwelcome for me on the album. As great of a listen as it was, we’ve all spent the best part of two years hearing nothing but talk of the pandemic. I use music to escape and although the song was generally upbeat about the situation, I listen to Zac Brown to dream of wild horses, whiskey, barbecues and the simple life – I don’t really want to be reminded of Covid. I think it doesn’t help that it follows straight on from ‘Fun Having Fun’, which is just all about fun and letting go, to then suddenly get serious and start talking about Covid just brought me straight back down from my high when I was listening to the album all the way through.
‘Paradise Lost on Me’ follows on and takes us back to that classic Zac Brown brand of escapism. This time, instead of the country lifestyle, we go for the holiday vibe. Margaritas and sandy beaches make up some of the idyllic holiday descriptions, before Zac gets all gushy and says that without the woman he loves it’s just ‘Paradise Lost on Me’. I like this song a lot. It’s chilled out, easy going, sweet and fun.
For some time now, it’s felt as though Zac has been at odds with his original fanbase, receiving flack for straying away from Country into other genres, such as on his EDM Sir Rosevelt project and his solo album. In turn, he has criticised those who try and pin him down into that ever-present ‘box’ that artists always seem to be trying to escape from. I think ZBB have covered so much musical ground since the ‘pure Country’ of The Foundation and You Get What You Give, that it would almost feel forced and superficial to try and return entirely to this when the group clearly have a different vision. The Comeback presents a perfect compromise, not ‘coming back’ wholeheartedly to their original sound, but giving us a good portion of that classic ZBB we all crave. Either way, it certainly returns them to their rightful pedestal at the top of Country music. The only issue is now I don’t know whether to book a holiday, hug my loved ones or set a haybarn on fire!!
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