When Zac Brown Band released Welcome Home in 2017, it sounded as though they were home to stay. Songs like “Roots” and “Family Table” celebrated Brown’s family-man image and firmly planted the band back in the country soundscape in which they started. But this September, the band’s latest album, The Owl, found them on a different planet. The Owl is Frankenstein’s monster: Dance-pop beat drops, questionable lyrics, rock and country all mashed together haphazardly. It’s not like there weren’t any warning signs beforehand ― Zac explicitly made the leap in 2016 by starting the EDM trio Sir Rosevelt. It’s just that Welcome Home seemed to promise that these interests would be kept separate. The Owl blends them together. Unsurprisingly, fans were disappointed. But what was most shocking was when Zac Brown doubled down on his new sound by dropping a solo pop album, The Controversy, a week later. Then fans were worried.
The band’s album titles have always been markers of their artistic development. Their first album, The Foundation, poured the foundation for Zac Brown Band’s wheelhouse with hits like “Chicken Fried” and “Toes.” These songs established the band in its corner of country music filled with strings, salt water and sincerity. Jekyll + Hyde (2015) embodied two personas ― one at the beach, one suited for the club, both still country. This album is sonically closest to The Owl, the only difference on the former is that Brown doesn’t try to be both Jekyll and Hyde at the same time.
The Owl is an equally revealing title. Like Zac Brown’s interest in the EDM world, owls aren’t seen as much as they are understood to always be around, living in the shadows. Additionally, owls are nocturnal. So it’s fitting that The Owl would come out during a period of darkness for Zac Brown a year after he and his wife announced they were separating. The first song, “The Woods,” invites the listener into that darkness and a side of the band they’ve never seen before, while acknowledging that a longtime fan might decline the invitation.
“What makes me smile / might make you cry” he shrugs over an auto-tuned and fiddle-heavy pop track. While “The Woods” is bearable, other tracks, like “OMW,” are not. “When you see that OMW / OMW / meaning I’m on my way, yeah / hell yeah / I’m on my way, yeah,” Brown croons like a dad rushing to hook up with someone half his age. Most of the songs on The Owl fall somewhere in between. For example, “Already on Fire” has a believable Western film groove and catchy hook that a deep, dark, out-of-nowhere autotuned bridge derails.
The title of Brown’s solo album, The Controversy, speaks for itself. It’s clear that Brown knew what he was about to incite when he dropped it. Labelled pop instead of country, (unlike The Owl), the album still feels too busy with EDM, hip hop, R&B and rock meshed together. But the music itself isn’t really what I have a problem with, it’s the lyrics. In “Swayze,” Brown brags that, “every time I get a new bitch, I need a new bitch.” It’s so gross that it’s comical. In “This Far,” the song questions how he became so successful ― something listeners will be wondering throughout the album, Brown sings, “No C-G / I’m still I” so solemnly I can’t help but smile. The only joy I get from listening to The Controversy is from recognizing how ridiculous it is.
Every artist changes their sound. Whether it’s a switch in genre or producers, a musician’s urge to try something new is as natural as a fan’s initial discomfort in hearing their favorite band sound different. But I don’t feel uncomfortable listening to The Owl or even The Controversy despite how cringe-worthy both can be. I just feel sad. It’s tempting to write an obituary for the Zac Brown Band, but the situation is worse than that. No-fun attempts to push genre boundaries like Jekyll + Hyde, The Owl and The Controversy sound like cries for help. It’s assumed that when musicians go through difficult times, they make their best music. But what happens when an artist already made meaningful music about their happy everyday life, and then has their world flipped upside down? In Zac Brown’s case, all that was deep turns shallow.
Still, there are two songs to return to out of all of this. “Someone That I Used to Know” pulls off EDM-country and offers some explanation for the band’s new direction. “When you keep on losing / with the path you’re choosing / then it’s time to let go / of someone that I used to know,” Brown advises. Unfortunately, that someone seems to be the “cold beer on a Friday night / pair of jeans that fit just right” beanie-wearing Zac Brown fans grew to love. The other song is The Owl’s closer “Leaving Love Behind.” Entirely acoustic with gorgeous harmonies, this song is so good it’s frustrating. It’s a reminder of what the Zac Brown Band is capable when Zac Brown is in the right headspace. It also provides context for the rest of the album by showing what got him in the wrong headspace ― his heartbreak at the end of his marriage.
“Everything we lose / will be a gift in time” he sings, and I agree. But it’s obvious this time hasn’t come yet for Zac Brown.