So, Zac Brown Band are back again with their new project ‘The Owl’. A new ZBB project always brings great excitement here at YLIAS HQ, where we’ve never shied away from the fact that they were our introduction to country and remain our top band to this day. Every album has kept us guessing, from the diverse ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ to the rootsy ‘Welcome Home’, so nothing was going to take us by surprise. Or so we thought.
Speaking to Billboard around the announcement of his side project, Sir Rosevelt, back in 2016, Zac Brown said:
“This is the outlet I get to do that [pushing boundaries] because we’re criticized and given one-star reviews now for people saying this isn’t country”
Fast-forward 3 years and here we are, with Zac Brown Band teaming up with established pop producers and releasing an album that is, for the most part, an amalgamation of EDM and Synth-pop. It saddens me to say it, but ZBB’s loyal fan base won’t be there for much longer if this is the long-term direction. Of course, I’m an advocate of artists evolving and pushing their creative boundaries, but to totally go back on your word after the failure that was Sir Rosevelt is a step too far. Judging by the early reaction on social media groups, it’s alienated the vast majority of listeners.
The most frustrating aspect is the sheer lack of utilisation of some of the best musicians on the planet. So much of ‘The Owl’ is purely synthetic and computer-generated. You have to wonder – what’s the point in the likes of Danny De Los Reyes and Jimmy De Martini? These guys used to be focal points in ZBB’s sound. Now, they’re just lost ingredients in a very unsavoury stew. Ultimately, whatever Zac says, goes, and it pays their bills, but I don’t seriously believe the whole band would be behind this EDM direction.
‘God Given’ is absolutely shambolic. Up there with the worst songs I’ve ever heard, from any artist, in any genre. “Damn, girl, what you got is god-given” – this is the same band that wrote classics like ‘Highway 20 Ride’ and ‘Free’. Particularly surprising, given the post-#MeToo, ultra PC world that we now live in, that Zac deems it acceptable to release such objectifying trash. ‘O.M.W’ and ‘Need This’ aren’t much better, either. I could at least appreciate a change in direction if the output was quality material and showcased some level of talent (such as ‘Someone That I Used To Know’ – good song). This stuff is such a waste of valuable album space, and ZBB won’t be looking back at these in years to come as some of their finest moments.
That being said, the album does have its pleasant moments here and there. ‘The Woods’ is a solid opening track with a nice, catchy groove. Just ignore the appalling lyrics like “some mountain don’t, some mountain dew” and the mention of “twerking” (something I never thought I’d hear come out of Zac Brown’s mouth). As a roots/pop crossover, it’s decent and certainly the best of its kind on ‘The Owl’. The stand-out is ‘Finish What We Started’, featuring the gorgeous vocals of Brandi Carlile. A gentle acoustic ballad with two vocalists who blend brilliantly; it restores some faith that the ZBB of old haven’t quite disappeared just yet.
‘Already On Fire’ is also a really good offering, until two minutes into the song where some utterly ridiculous robotic vocals completely wreck the song. It’s such a shame; one of the album’s high points it seems, but Zac can’t keep his fingers away from the MacBook for a full three minutes.
‘Leaving Love Behind’ completes the album; a very honest, open outpouring of emotion from Zac in the aftermath of his divorce. Credit to him for opening a book that many artists wouldn’t dare open. Really nice song, but it feels massively out of place on such a lyrically-shallow album. It just adds to the overall confusion.
‘The Owl’ is an album I tried desperately hard to like. I’m rooting for the guys and know the phenomenal heights they’re capable of reaching; this just isn’t it. I would estimate a good 80% of the comments online today have been negative; if you’re using that as a sample of their worldwide fan base, that isn’t a good sign. It might be the album that serves as a moment of realisation for Zac that the fans won’t just stick with them through blind loyalty. I certainly hope so. I’m off to listen to the Greatest Hits album…