For years Zac Brown Band has walked an interesting line between country and rock. Those of us who had the privilege of seeing them before they became famous can remember shows that featured more rock than country moments, and every one of their albums has featured moments of Southern rock, Buffett-style island pop, reggae, and jam band stylings.
Two weeks ago, the band released Jekyll + Hyde, their most ambitious and eclectic album to date, and the critics just don’t know what to do with it. Some reviewers have complimented the record, with Billboard magazine stating that the band “captures its onstage madness” on the new release, and Rolling Stone says “they bang out styles with such preposterous ease — Seventies Philly soul, old-timey gospel, Celtic folk, metal, reggae, jazz — they could incorporate as a single-band music-placement agency.”
But then there are the complaints. Consequences of Sound‘s review sounds positive on the surface, but read deep and you’ll find plenty of backhanded statements that come across as negative (especially coming from a reviewer who calls herself an “elitist” when it comes to country music). The New York Times characterizes the album as containing “the kind of omnivorousness that went in and out of fashion in hip-hop more than a decade ago, but still feels novel in country” and repeatedly trashes Brown’s voice on a record where he stretches his range further than ever. Entertainment Weekly gives Jekyll + Hyde a grade of C+ and accuses the band of “self-indulgence.”
But the best bad review has to come from Saving Country Music. I usually love the way this blog pokes holes in the current bro-country genre that has become so popular and highlights some traditional country acts who might otherwise fall through the cracks, but their reviewer seems to have plenty of daggers for Zac Brown Band while admitting what all of us longtime fans know: that they’re not strictly a country band. Reviewer “Trigger” seems to have real issues with the band being good at what they do, regardless of musical style:
Music is not a skills competition. This isn’t the decathlon. They don’t hand out Grammy Awards for the band that can play songs from the most genres. They give Grammys to the artists who steady themselves and prove they are the best in a given musical discipline. I’ll give credit to the backing band of Weird Al for their alacrity. With the Zac Brown Band, I just want to hear good songs. I’m not impressed that they can segue from a Frank Sinatra-inspired sonnet into progressive grunge. If I’m feeling in those moods, I’ll go listen to the bands and artists who’ve mastered those mediums and made music from inspiration, instead of someone trying to impress me with their shape shifting ability.
Here’s the thing: Jekyll + Hyde is a mess of an album, but it’s a glorious mess. Leadoff single “Homegrown” proves that Zac Brown Band still knows how to deliver a country hook, but the band hops from genre to genre throughout the album, stretching their impressive chops and covering territory they’ve never ventured into before. As mainstream country embraces dance-pop, the opening track “Beautiful Drug” dives headlong to irresistible effect, while “Tomorrow Never Comes” incorporates electronic elements into its country/folk foundation, though the acoustic version at the album’s end is more haunting.
Tunes like new single “Loving You Easy” and “One Day” combine breezy pop and classic soul elements that sound retro and fresh at the same time. Pop chanteuse Sara Bareilles joins in on the playful big band number “Mango Tree,” which sounds far less like a band tune than a straight duet with Brown and Bareilles. The sweet folk of the first half of “I’ll Be Your Man (Song For A Daughter)” will certainly bring tears to many a dads’ eyes – at least until the song devolves into a bizarre ad-lib competition. The one cover tune, Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues,” tells of a soldier’s funeral in a moving story song.
But Zac Brown Band is at its best when walking that rock line. Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell adds his distinctive voice to “Heavy Is The Head,” a hybrid of grunge, progressive rock, and Southern rock that topped Billboard‘s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart for two weeks. “Junkyard” revisits a tune from their first independent album and gives it an even edgier rock kick. The touching country ballad “Bittersweet” morphs into an even more powerful rock track by its end.
The highs and fascinating moments on Jekyll + Hyde don’t mean that the album is without its low points. “Castaway,” the record’s requisite Coral Reefer nod suggests that the band may have drawn from the Buffett well one too many times. The quasi-gospel of “Remedy” loses its power in a muddy universalist message that’s tough to get behind. And some of the least appealing numbers are the ones that fall most squarely into the country vein – “Wildfire” and “Young and Wild.”
With Jekyll + Hyde, Zac Brown Band has delivered one ambitious free-form radio station of an album. It’s one that demonstrates the true capabilities of these guys as both musicians and vocalists, and it’s sure to please the band’s longtime fans just as it has managed to confound so many critics.