A joint review from James Daykin (@rockjames) and Dan Wharton (@LifeInASong_Dan)…
Sometimes Country artists outgrow the genre. Their desire for creativity and musical fulfilment drives them beyond the confines of what is deemed acceptable by the gate-keepers of Country music. The Zac Brown Band found themselves in this position on ‘Jekyll & Hyde’, an album bursting with ideas, fecund with melody and experimentation but ultimately rejected by the rule makers of Nashville. So, what did Zac do – well, he changed record labels, gave the genre the follow up, ‘Welcome Home’ and created an offshoot project, ‘Sir Roosevelt’ in which he could be who he really wanted to be.
I found ‘Welcome Home’ a step backwards in terms of creativity if I’m being honest – ‘Roots’ was good, ‘My Old Man’ was touching but large parts of ‘Welcome Home’, were, well… boring to me and so I am THRILLED to see the ZBB back in experimental territory on new song, co-written with Shawn Mendes, ‘Someone I Used to Know’.
To understand the song and it’s import to ZBB you have to look beyond the weird keyboard noise that comes at the end of each chorus and the click track backing that appears in places too – both these elements are like a red rag to the Country bull at times but it is in the lyrics that you’ll find the key to the song.
Mendes and Brown both worked with Avicii, the Swedish DJ and producer who committed suicide in April of this year and this song is, on the face of it, a tribute to him. It contains elements of his sound and his work that both Mendes and Brown clearly admired and the lyrics touch upon the potential personality traits that led Avicii down the path towards his death. ‘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 sings in the chorus, having already referenced alcohol and narcissism as contributing factors in the decline of the subject in the song.
Interestingly, the song could also be about Zac Brown himself. Having recently announced a split from his wife and mother of his five children, Brown’s life is probably in turmoil right now. Look at the cover of ‘Someone I Used to Know’ – it shows Brown’s face (someone who famously doesn’t like appearing on a lot of the band’s promo for songs and albums) on one side and the face of death, a skeleton, on the other. This song could be a redemptive step forward in his own life too, as he learns to let go of ‘someone he used to know’ and learns how to be a single dad. We might also be getting some clues as to why such a seemingly strong marriage on the outside fell apart on the inside.
Whoever the song is about it is the multi-faceted lyrics and the depth of their import that is the key to liking the song. Look beyond the non-Country orchestration and you’ll find a beautifully sung song about addiction and loss that is more meaningful and relevant to Brown as an artist now than some of the lazy Country clichés that inhabited many of the songs on “Welcome Home’ were. ‘You Get What You Give’ is one of the top five Country albums of all time in my opinion but when you have produced something like that once, you want to challenge yourself musically to avoid repetition – that’s what ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ was – and, for the most part, it worked, which is why ‘Welcome Home’ felt like a step backwards to me.
‘Someone I Used to Know’ is a step in the right direction again. Who knows, it could be a one-off but let’s hope it’s not. Let’s hope the fans and the genre give the ZBB the space to be who they want to be and it doesn’t have to be buried in side projects any more. This is a new phase in both Brown and the band’s lives, personally and musically – I, for one, applaud them for their bravery and want to say, ‘welcome home’, I missed you!
James has pretty much covered it with the review side there, but I wanted to add my slightly more reserved thoughts. I touched on this topic a little in my review of Zac Brown Band’s show at BluesFest a couple of weeks ago. It’s a really interesting predicament with ZBB; as James mentioned above, the ‘Welcome Home’ album, as much as I enjoyed their return to the ZBB style that made me fall in love with them, felt slightly formulated and I never truly believed that it was the direction Zac would have chosen to pursue. I think Zac is bored of the confines of country music and he’s always been prone to throwing up surprises.
Take a moment to look at the comments on the the photo they uploaded to Facebook post-BluesFest. Many were disillusioned with the ‘Enter Sandman’ cover (which, in fairness, has become a staple in Zac’s set lists over the years) and particularly the Beastie Boys ‘Sabotage’ cover. There seems to be a divide in their fan base – I’m fairly open-minded and have immense respect for their sheer musical brilliance and can stomach their experimental moments, but there seems to be a very fine line for many between ‘classic’ ZBB and ‘off piste’ ZBB.
‘Someone I Used To Know’ worries me and delights me in equal measure. At the end of the day, I want Zac releasing good music, whether it be EDM, rock, country, whatever. And this is a damn good song – a seriously good release. As far as pop/EDM songs go, this is up there with the very best I’ve heard for a long time (not that I profess to be an expert in that field!). The mainstream potential here with the remixes that could be produced is absolutely huge, and the Shawn Mendes involvement could be Zac’s gateway to that ‘next level’.
Where Zac has to be really careful is not alienating the fan base that has elevated him and the guys to this level in the first place. He described his side project, Sir Rosevelt, as “a new outlet for creativity, connection and art”, yet here we are with another Zac Brown Band EDM track. It invites criticism, not that Zac probably cares. We saw how ‘Beautiful Drug’ bombed when it was introduced to the country world, so it’s surprising to see another release of the same style under the ZBB banner.
But one thing’s for sure, whatever the man tries his hand at, he pulls it off with flying colours. Appreciate the quality of ‘Someone I Used To Know’ and enjoy it for what it is – a mightily good track.