‘The Great American Bar Scene’ Is The Best And Worst Of Zach Bryan

It’s not easy being a guitar-slinging, heart-on-your-sleeve stadium rocker in 2024. For one thing, it’s a lonely job. There aren’t many left of you on the planet. For role models, you must therefore consult ancient history. For Zach Bryan — whose meteoric rise from Oklahoman Navy veteran to Americana figurehead has made him one of the biggest young superstars of the decade — that means studying the sacred texts of one Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen.

On his latest album The Great American Bar Scene, references to The Boss abound. One album in particular looms large for Bryan — 1982’s Nebraska, the home-recorded masterpiece that Springsteen put out between two of his biggest-sounding rock records, 1980’s The River and 1984’s Born In The U.S.A. On the title track, Bryan spins a familiar tale about a down-on-his-luck loser who’s out some money from a bookie “way up in Philly.” Does this guy also have a poultry related nickname? Bryan doesn’t say. But he does underline the Bruce connection by having his protagonist “put ‘State Trooper’ on the record machine” as he’s escorted away by police, after which I assume he will be sent to face the infamous judge, Mean John Brown.

The Bruce allusions don’t end there. On the stormy rocker “Oak Island,” the best song on the record and one of the better tunes in Bryan’s entire catalog, the song’s main character gets tied up with “some boys out in Jersey” who have him on the wrong end of a shady deal. The frisky “American Nights” is yet another “Atlantic City” homage featuring “Delco Danny” and “the Point Breeze boys,” plus an opening line about a cinematically positioned screen door a la “Thunder Road.” And then there’s the song where Springsteen himself materializes as a very special guest star. (We’ll talk more about that in a moment.)

It makes sense that of all Springsteen records Bryan would be enamored with Nebraska. His unlikely rise has been even more extraordinary given his preference for modest, quasi-lo-fi recordings. Bryan’s brand is making hits that don’t sound like they’re trying to be hits. Like countless other listeners, I have found this approach to be mostly refreshing, especially when it is paired with a knack for vivid storytelling ornamented with rich literary detail. The depth of his narratives is considerable when compared with someone like Noah Kahan, the Bryan Adams to Zach’s Bruce Springsteen, and you can hear him further developing his craft on a song like “The Way Back,” which has the verisimilitude of a faded Polaroid taped to a refrigerator in an abandoned trailer:

Tokin’ poison to some Killers song
Your old man’s Trans-Am in Kodachrome
Bumper sticker to the back right
State champs ’83 through ’85
She’s smokin’ cigarettes in the kitchen
Tom and Jerry’s on the front room television
She always sat under the oak tree
Sayin’, “God, I miss the old me”

I am a Zach Bryan fan. But my admiration for his talent and prodigious output comes with some serious reservations. His ability to zero in on precise specifics with his words typically isn’t matched by an ability to create equally arresting melodies. For all his flair as a lyrical stylist, his music can be monotonous and flat sounding. So, while Bryan impressively composes a lot of songs, a lot of those songs are hard to distinguish from one another. At some point, his albums always get bogged down in a series of downbeat, mid-tempo dirges in which Zach pines after long-lost girls that he had to leave but can’t ever forget.

Am I suggesting that Zach Bryan hire Bob Clearmountain and make an album as clear and mountainous as Born In The U.S.A.? Not exactly. Though it might be worth considering that doing something arrangement or production-wise might make his songs as fun to hear as they are to read. Failing that, Bryan should consider following Springsteen’s example when it comes to quality control. In his prime, Bruce was famous for writing five songs for every one that he put on a record. Now, I understand that’s not the world we live in during the streaming era, where artists are emboldened to empty their coffers on albums that feel more like data dumps than coherent statements. But The Great American Bar Scene is at least six songs too long, and pretty much all of those superfluous tunes — I refer to nice but nondescript tracks like “Boons,” “Like Ida,” and “Towers” — feel interchangeable and inessential.

At the very least, can we please get more drums, Mighty Max-style? My favorite Zach Bryan album by far remains his 2022 breakthrough American Heartbreak, which happens to be his hardest rocking. And yes, it’s also his longest, but it doesn’t feel like it because Bryan varies up his attack more, with more blasts of scrappy country rock interspersed with all the barstool ballads. When Bryan revives that part of his musical persona on The Great American Scene, the album similarly teems with life and vigor. You hear it on the ragged shuffle “28” and on the Bruce tributes “American Nights” and the guitar solo-heavy “Oak Island,” which will no doubt bring down the house at Bryan’s riotous concerts.

And then there’s the aforementioned cameo by Zach Bryan’s venerable forefather. On “Sandpaper,” Bruce Springsteen arrives sounding even more weathered than usual, as if he is trying to embody the very property to which the song title refers. It’s poignant to realize that Bruce is to Zach Bryan what Johnny Cash was to a previous generation of artists — a voice-of-God type standing in for principles now regarded in the modern world with skepticism and incredulity, like “realness” and “America.”

But “Sandpaper” thankfully isn’t another downbeat dirge. It is, in fact, a rather bald-faced rip-off of “I’m On Fire,” the sultry sex jam that became the fourth (out of seven) Top 10 hit from Born In The U.S.A. Is it possible that Bruce — even as he stares down his 75th birthday later this year — has arrived to help Zach Bryan loosen up a bit? Maybe the kid has his own Born In The U.S.A. in him after all.