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August 28, 2023

Feelings and Americana in Zach Bryan’s Zach Bryan

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I’m a recent convert to country music. At one point, I might have given the usual line that I listen to “anything but country” — now, if you see me driving around campus with my windows down, you’ll probably hear me blasting my hours-long “country era” playlist. This week, the country album of choice has been Zach Bryan’s new self-titled album, a raw 54 minutes of poetry, folk and Americana. 

On August 25, Bryan released his fourth full-length album since his debut DeAnn (2019). In the last four years, Bryan has amassed over 16 million monthly listeners on Spotify and sold out shows nationwide. Yet, despite his quickly-earned success, Zach Bryan does not pose as anything other than Zach Bryan. A big part of his music’s widespread appeal is its expertful intimacy and authentic sound. Zach Bryan is entirely self-produced and shows listeners who Bryan is. The country artist has said on numerous occasions that he doesn’t care what people think of his music. 

The album opens with “Fear and Friday’s (Poem),” an honest minute and 47 seconds of Bryan speaking over instrumentals. The track gives old fans an on-ramp into their favorite feelings and unfamiliar listeners a preview of who Bryan is: honest, reflective, self-critical and full of feeling. The second track, “Overtime,” opens with the blaring beginning chords of the national anthem. The song defines the album’s flavor of Americana, also weaving in a personal touch from Bryan, who was born in Oklahoma and joined the U.S. Navy at seventeen. 

The instrumentals are crisp, weaving together folk, rock and country. Though the album couldn’t stand without the reliable character of Bryan’s guitar, the real strength of the music lies in its poetry. The magic arises from Bryan’s balancing of the personal and the universal; he expertfully crafts his lyrics with details that are specific enough to paint a vivid picture but accessible enough to evoke intense feelings in any listener. The lyrics are carefully crafted but not lofty; his language is precise but also simple enough for any listener to enjoy.

Each song tells a story, and Bryan draws you into his world: “And you’re grinnin’ like a vandal / after swiggin’ on a handle of Tito’s / Lord, I didn’t plan this / I’m just goin’ as far as the wind blows” (“Holy Roller (feat. Sierra Ferrell)”). His songs bounce between love, heartbreak, remorse and wistfulness, and he is a wizard at making his own experiences feel universal. I am Diet Coke and New York, but Bryan makes me long for whiskey and Oklahoma. 

The album features other big names in folk and country like Kacey Musgraves and The Lumineers. “I Remember Everything (feat. Kacey Musgraves)” is another standout song filled with memories and longing: “You’re like concrete feet in the summer heat / That burns like hell when two souls meet.” Bryan seamlessly blends his style with the featured artists’ and brings out the best of both. 

Many of the songs on the album do sound the same, but the similarity between songs adds to the cohesiveness of the album, rather than making for a boring listen. Each song stands on its own as a moment of emotion and reflection, but the album as a whole also provides an artfully crafted and consistent listening experience. 

Bryan has a number of songs under his belt like “Something in the Orange” and “Oklahoma Smokeshow” that you’ve probably heard on TikTok and may be more catchy than any of the songs on Zach Bryan. However, it might be a more impressive feat for Bryan to have written an album that captures his essence as a complete body of work, as an anthology of poems rather than radio hits.

Bryan’s work is nostalgic yet fresh — he’s found success within the scene of contemporary country music, but also hasn’t fallen prey to the vicious trap of bottled pop country. Bryan’s continued self-awareness is another big appeal of the album. He puts all of himself into his songs, even the parts that may be ugly or “distasteful to mostly everyone,” as he writes in his opening track. He embraces his roughness around the edges, asking in “East Side of Sorrow,” “Do you ever get tired of singin’ songs / Like all your pain is just another fucking sing along.” 

It’s music for the girls, music for the guys, music for friends or for a morning alone. Zach Bryan gives us sixteen tracks of unapologetic Zach Bryan, and the big-hearted and acoustic guitar-minded among us will be grateful to add the album to their Spotify libraries.

Kiki Plowe is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].