Zach Bryan opens his new album with a poem. “I’ve learned that every waking moment is enough,” he says, “and excess never leads to better things. It only piles and piles upon things that are already abundantly in front of you.” His delivery on the track, titled “Fear And Friday’s (Poem),” is down-home and conversational. As he strums his guitar, it sounds as though he is sitting in a bedroom somewhere and speaking into a tape recorder. It’s an arena-filling superstar caught in an intimate moment, only it’s presented via the least intimate vehicle — a probable smash hit LP — imaginable.
By placing “Fear And Friday’s (Poem)” at the start of Zach Bryan, the self-titled followup to his blockbuster 2022 major-label debut American Heartbreak, Bryan might appear to be making a statement about his own success. And, in fact, he almost certainly is, given that the idea is underlined by the next track, “Overtime,” a surging heartland rocker powered by a soaring trumpet and a galloping drum pattern in which Bryan reflects on his pre-fame heritage and promises to not let celebrity spoil him:
And I wanna stay humble, I wanna stay hungry
I wanna hear my father say that he loves me
I never gave a shit about being arrogant anyway
But that is only part of the story. What the one-two punch of “Fear And Friday’s (Poem)” and “Overtime” also demonstrates is what makes Zach Bryan unique. When judged at a superficial remove, Bryan fits the mold of a broadly appealing Americana singer. A solidly built Oklahoma native who served in the Navy for eight years — he was discharged only in 2021, after building his name from songs he wrote, recorded, and posted online while in the service — he cuts a good-looking, jockish figure. (He could be Pat McAfee’s younger brother.) Politically, he more or less rests at the center, which means he’s just liberal enough to tussle with Travis Tritt about the Bud Light boycott and just conservative enough to complain about social media on Joe Rogan’s podcast. And then there is his generic-sounding name, which could be the mean of every middle-of-the-road lunk who had a hit song about a pickup truck in the past 20 years.
Only when you dig deeper do you notice what makes Bryan truly special. For singer-songwriters of his ilk, there are normally three lanes to popularity. The first is the “throwback outlaw” lane. (Sturgill Simpson and to a lesser degree Tyler Childers.) The second is the “thinking man’s Southern rock” lane. (Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell.) The third is is the “pop-country with elements of hip-hop” lane. (Morgan Wallen.) Bryan did not take any of these lanes. Like a lot of 27-year-olds, he came to folk and country through contemporary music that referenced those sounds as he came of age in the aughts and early 2010s: indie rock.
To the New York Times — in one of the only interviews he’s granted in the past few years — he confessed growing up on “weird indie music,” namely Radiohead and Bon Iver. On social media, he recently professed an ambition to one day make a “midwest punk album,” which he called “the best music in my opinion.” (That the artists he cited — The Front Bottoms, Joyce Manor, Hovvdy, and We Were Promised Jetpacks — aren’t actually “midwest punk” music must be noted, though not to dilute the overriding spirit.)
Two indie acts that I haven’t seen Bryan speak about, Bright Eyes and Dashboard Confessional, nevertheless also seem pertinent. On Zach Bryan, you can hear the former in the chaotic uplift of “Overtime” — as well as in Bryan’s phrasing, which carefully articulates each well-chosen word — and the similarly rousing “East Side Of Sorrow,” which revives the horns and stampeding rhythm to create a sweeping, mock-orchestral bombast. It’s not an exact homage; Bryan is too much of a craftsman to allow his songs to teeter on the brink of full-blown collapse the way Conor Oberst frequently does. But the signifiers of “homemade” and “personal” music that you get from Bright Eyes — the room noise, the unadorned vocals, the urgent instrumentation — are also plain on Zach Bryan, even when they are merged with a far more commercial songwriting sensibility. (I am obviously not the only person to notice this.)
As for the latter aughts-era emo touchstone, Dashboard Confessional didn’t enter my mind in relation to Zach Bryan until All My Homies Hate Ticketmaster, an enjoyably raucous live album released at the end of 2022. I was already a fan of American Heartbreak — I put it on my year-end list — but until All My Homies I did not fully appreciate the degree to which Bryan resonates with his audience. Performing for a sold-out crowd at the venerable Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado, Bryan frequently fights to be heard over his fans, who shout every word to every number in the 24-song setlist. It’s a phenomenon that instantly reminded of the infamous Dashboard Confessional episode of MTV Unplugged, in which Chris Carrabba is just about drowned out by a studio audience filled with devoted teenaged fans.
On All My Homies, Zach Bryan does not come across like a regular superstar country singer. He’s more like an emo cult figure with the scale and audience of a regular superstar country singer. Talk about a potent combination. The underlying difference concerns how Bryan approaches the eternally thorny issue of authenticity. In country, there are always artists who claim to bring the music back to its working-class roots; this summer a certain ginger-haired lightning rod became an instant (though perhaps short-lived) star by doing just that.
This is not Bryan’s approach. His currency is emotional authenticity, in which he delivers gut-level catharsis in a mainstream pop context that otherwise is placid and plastic. Just as hearing Bright Eyes or Dashboard Confessional in the early aughts when the alternatives were Limp Bizkit and Ashlee Simpson jumpstarted many teenaged hearts, encountering a song as stripped-down and nakedly melancholic as “Something In The Orange” (a monster hit that has been streamed nearly 500 million times on Spotify) in relation to the rest of the pop world circa the early 2020s clearly has bonded millions of people to Bryan as something more than just another guitar-slinging troubadour.
If I have a primary complaint about Zach Bryan, it’s that this specialness doesn’t always come through. Whereas American Heartbreak was big enough to allow for scores of curveballs and tossed-off gems, Zach Bryan feels like a relatively safe sequel. The middle part of the record – where Bryan collaborates with down-the-line Americana mainstays like Kacey Musgraves, The Lumineers, and The War And Treaty — is dirge-y and redundantly mid-tempo, like an NPR roots music show on autopilot. Though even here you can hear the indie-rock in Bryan, particularly “Tourniquet” and “Jake’s Piano – Long Island,” which nod aggressively in the direction of The National.
Listening to Zach Bryan, I found myself longing for the intense live energy of All My Homies, in which Bryan is willed toward greatness by the legions of followers who worship him as Oklahoma’s answer to the Hot Topic generation. Then again, Zach Bryan could also be read as a “downbeat follow-up to a huge hit” album, which the man himself would probably prefer. “I wrote and produced an album that I wanted to listen to,” he wrote in a note posted right before the record dropped on Friday. “I self titled because I hear every cell of my being in it.” Bryan typed these words in white font against a black backdrop. Only one word could describe the aesthetic: Emo.
Zach Bryan is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.