Zac Brown Band – ‘The Owl’ Album Review: Big highs meet big lows on the latest offering
Zac Brown said it himself at the CMA Awards, “f*ck the haters”, and that about sums up the embattled and defensive mood around camp ZBB in recent years. From the release of 2015’s Jekyl & Hyde the band have been constantly hit over the head with assertions that they’re moving away from ‘their sound’. Sure, their last LP Welcome Home kept the haters at bay for a brief time but recent singles (and a critically slammed live performance of new song God Given) have only served to stoke the flames again.
So, 2019’s release, The Owl, is coming amongst understandably low expectations. EDM-tinged Someone I Used to Know was chosen as the lead single, it’s a song that grew on me over time, but had critics sharpening their blades ahead of The Owl dropping. If Zac were ever to read this, I’m not a hater, I don’t have an issue with him pursuing the sound he wants for his band, I’m coming at this from a neutral place. There we go, a fitting intro before I tell you just how big a let down this record is.
Right from the opener, The Woods, we’re hit with electronic beats and click tracks and it only gets worse as Zac begins to rap throughout Need This. It’s nonsense. The lyrics are empty, he tells us how he wants to feel something, he needs something, we’re just not sure what, presumably a woman.
Next up, OMW, this song opens with “did you really mean to call me? Or was it a pocket dial? Just another pocket dial? An infamous pocket dial?” and I’m laughing out loud. I’m embarrassed to be listening to it. It’s a sort of R&B mixed with OneRepublic song. I’m not sure what Clay Cook, Coy Boyles, Chris Friar etc were doing on this day but presumably their talents weren’t required. I can’t imagine that this gifted group of musicians ever felt 100% comfortable producing this type of song. Again, I don’t care if it’s country or not, it’s just making me cringe. I’d cringe if Justin Bieber did it, I’d cringe if Ariana Grande did it, and I’m cringing when Zac Brown Band do it.
As I mentioned before, Someone I Used to Know has grown on me over time. I actually really enjoy the emotion of the song and the meaning. Zac is very open talking about mental health since his friend and collaborator Avicii tragically took his life. There’s an EDM beat and some serious auto tune, but it works for me on this song. Again, maybe the fact it’s a very fitting tribute to Avicii and others lost to mental health makes it feel more of a comfortable fit. It has some heart, something the preceding tracks don’t.
There are certain songs where Zac and the boys dip their toe back into a more traditional ZBB sound, Me and the Boys in the Band has swampy slide guitar and a vibe slightly more reminiscent of what people have come to expect from them, despite it never feeling like Zac lets the true power of his voice loose.
All this said, the stand out song on the album is one that I genuinely feel could be one of the best songs I’ve heard in 2019. Finish What We Started features the always amazing Brandi Carlile sharing vocal duties with Zac and it’s a truly stunning song. It’s a song about working through hard times and making things work. Ending in a big crescendo where both vocalists soar, it’s worth buying The Owl just for this.
How do we follow up such a song? With the now viral (for all the wrong reasons) God Given. The hate for this song isn’t because it’s ‘not country’, not at all (well, it probably is for some people). Whatever genre you put this in, it’s pure empty, meaningless rubbish. As Zac sings “Gucci bags, stacks on stacks, diamonds fill up the champagne glass”, a little piece of my love for this great band dies. To go back to a similar comparison earlier, I wouldn’t expect this from Usher, I wouldn’t expect it from any R&B star, and I don’t expect it from Zac Brown Band.
Warrior, a tribute to America’s military, is perhaps easier to like for an American. To me, it’s predictable and over-produced. Shoofly Pie gives us a nod back to the days of The Foundation, it’s funky slide and down-home lyrics will get toes tapping and crowds singing. We even get some of those famous ZBB harmonies! Great tune!
Already on Fire is another decent song, albeit a little middle-of-the-road. The final song, the piano-led Leaving Love Behind is a strong finish to the record. This ballad recalls Zac’s recent divorce and will bring a lump to the throat of anyone who’s lost a love recently. His voice is in top form here, full of emotion, note-perfect, the Zac Brown we all dearly love.
It’s hard to conclude this album review. I’m a huge ZBB fan and love everything they’ve done. It’s worth remembering that Zac said this album shouldn’t be judged as a ‘country’ album and I totally understand why he feels the need to state that. As fans, we can become militant, if it’s not ‘country enough’ we get angry, we often feel that artists owe us more of what we like. Zac Brown Band don’t owe us anything, I truly hope all this talented band are ‘with’ Zac in wanting to experiment with their sound. The big problem I have with The Owl is that, for the most part, it’s just not good music. Forget genre labels, there are just some flat-out bad songs on there. Don’t get me wrong, there’s also a couple of diamonds hidden within, but I can’t pretend God Given and OMW are anything more than poorly written songs.
I’m not going to sit here and beg for them to re-record The Foundation or Uncaged, but what I would ask for is a return to good, honest, heartfelt songwriting. Make a rap song if you want, make a country song, make a flipping industrial electro album if you must, just give it some heart, for crying out loud.
- The Woods
- Needs This
- Someone I Used to Know
- Me and the Boys in the Band
- Finish What We Started (Feat. Brandi Carlile)
- God Given
- Shoofly Pie
- Already on Fire
- Leaving Love Behind
Finish What We Started, Shoofly Pie, Leaving Love Behind
Six Shooter Rating
5 out of 10