Country Jukebox Jury LP: Zac Brown Band – The Comeback

What a mess Zac Brown’s career has been recently. It can be attributed directly to band lynchpin Wyatt Durette leaving to help Luke Combs write hits that capture the zeitgeist. Ten years ago it was the ZBB era, with the band playing wicked sets at Country2Country including passable versions of Enter Sandman and Bohemian Rhapsody. These didn’t sit well with the Jimmy Buffett-inspired beach jams like Knee Deep, Chicken Fried and Toes, which put the band on the radio regularly in the pre-Bro era.

Songs like Beautiful Drug and Zac’s Sir Rosevelt project with buddy Niko Moon (who co-wrote the mighty Loving You Easy) moved him away from country radio, while the likes of Chris Cornell popped up on albums which veered more towards blues and soul. Then Zac got divorced, released a panned solo album and an underwhelming album with the band, and now his new label Warner has told him to make some money. Return our investment, earn back our advance…

And so it comes to pass that the new ZBB album is called The Comeback, which may as well be called the Come to the Bank album. They’ll make their money from touring, not record sales as they did in the late-2000s, and so new songs need to slot into the old repertoire, like Coldplay or Adele. It’s exactly what accountants think Zac Brown Band sounds like, which makes it less art and more commerce.

Opening track Slow Burn, written with Peach Picker Ben Hayslip, opens with a riff and some band harmonies over the drum pattern from Clocks by Coldplay, while Zac sings about ‘young love and the radio’. The middle eight is the most interesting part of the song, rescuing it from being ploddy.

We were treated to that song and several others to whet fans’ appetites. Same Boat is Chicken Refried with a whistle solo, Old Love Song hops on the Frankenstein trend of naming lots of old songs in a brand new song, and Marcus King provides some blues guitar on the noodling, seven-minute Stubborn Pride, which is probably there to show long-time fans that the new label respects the jam. Out In The Middle was written with Luke Combs and you can tell, with plenty of rural signposts as well as being in Luke’s favourite key of D-flat major. The middle eight is the most interesting part of the song, rescuing it from being ploddy.

Praise be, Wyatt Durette is back in the songwriting room for several tracks on the album. There’s the warm ballad Wild Palomino, with its a cappella second verse and lush harmonies, the throwaway beach jam Paradise Lost On Me and title track The Comeback, where ‘if you hit rock bottom, the only way is up’ means more when you realise Zac went through a tough divorce relatively recently. Wyatt also helps out his old chums on the rifftastic GA Clay (which bursts into uncredited gospel vocals in the middle) and Don’t Let Your Heart, another carpe diem song which closes the album with a flourish that reminds me of The Band.

As seems to be popular on mainstream albums, a black performer features and, here, is credited! It’s Gregory Porter on Closer To Heaven, a marvellous midtempo ballad where they sing ‘goodbye to sad songs and hello to moving on’. Gregory may well have played similar festivals to Zac, like Bluesfest in London, so it’s not as wild a pairing as you’d think. The middle eight on this song anchors it nicely. Expect to hear it on the Radio 2 playlist by March.

Elsewhere, Any Day Now and Love & Sunsets both sound like classic ZBB ballads with plenty of heart and pretty arrangements – and probably the result of Warner Music asking for them as the contract stipulates – while and Us Against the World is a reminscin’ song with some heavy riffing and a wide-open chorus which would make it a decent radio single (the middle eight is great too).

Fun Having Fun, a surefire live favourite for their next tour, opens with a party horn and continues in a carpe diem fashion, with a superb instrumental middle section which briefly accelerates and catches the listener off guard.

Clearly The Comeback is the band’s best and most cohesive album in years, because it mimics what sold for the band at the start of their career. Whether by accident or design, or because Zac needs a lot of money to replenish his bank account, this is a great 54 minutes of music. James Daykin of Lyric Magazine has thanked him ‘for not being a dick anymore’; I would like to add thanks to Warner Music for helping remove that dickishness. Cash, as ever, is king.

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