Zach Bryan has had an unprecedented couple of years. Two years ago, Bryan was eight years into a Navy career, uploading videos of himself and his guitar to YouTube in his free time. Until last summer, he was unknown beyond a small, devoted circle of fans. Now he claims seven of the top 10 songs on Apple Music in the United States. All 16 songs on his self-titled album released on Aug. 25 have spots in the top 20.
Once or twice a generation, an album comes out that fans listen to for the first time knowing that one day they’ll be singing every lyric by heart. For Zach Bryan fans, Zach Bryan is that album.
When Bryan first went viral on YouTube with his “Heading South” video, almost every comment started with “I’m not a fan of country music, but …” Today, that video of Bryan strumming his guitar fervently with a beet red face and sweat beading on his forehead has been seen by over 22 million people. In an era where country music is largely inseparable from snap tracks and right-wing sentiments, Bryan offers a breath of fresh air. His music is simple, timeless, and relatable. He is also the first major country artist to blow up on his own accord—gaining popularity through streaming platforms rather than the Nashville scene and country radio.
Bryan’s 2022 major label debut American Heartbreak was literally hours longer than anything he had released in the past, with the triple album boasting 34 tracks. Despite his newfound fame and cult following, Bryan kept his persona from becoming larger than life. He often opens live performances with something along the lines of “here’s a song I wrote, hope you don’t hate it,” and frequently expresses humble sentiments like “almost embarrassing writing songs in the same lifetime as Jason Isbell.” It is hard to be just a guy from a small town in Oklahoma who writes songs while also selling out the country’s largest arenas, but Bryan walks the line.
If American Heartbreak was a departure from the sound of Bryan’s first two projects, Zach Bryan represents a return to the more stripped-down, acoustic sound that first earned Bryan notoriety. Though not fully acoustic, Zach Bryan feels more unplugged than American Heartbreak. The tempos are slower, the acoustic guitars and violins are more pronounced, and the lyricism takes center stage. Throughout Zach Bryan, the singer touches on darker themes more frequently than on his last album. Still, Zach Bryan follows a more optimistic note than many of Bryan’s earlier projects.
Bryan sets a relaxing tone early on with the album’s first track, “Fear and Friday’s (Poem).” It is a simple poem about abandoning fear to appreciate the beauty of life set to basic acoustic guitar. Despite not being a song, it sits at No. 19 on the Apple Music charts. The poem serves as an overture for the album, introducing substantive themes that Bryan returns to on later tracks.
Among these themes is the idea that “every waking moment is enough, / And excess never leads to better things,” as Bryan says in the spoken word track. With excess representing the current country music landscape and perhaps moments of American Heartbreak, Zach Bryan is a defiant move in favor of “things that are / Already abundantly in front of you— / Like breathin’ And chasin’ / And slow dancin’ and love makin’, / Fightin’ and laughing.”
“East Side of Sorrow” is a good example. On the album’s fourth track, Bryan touches on emotional themes like watching friends die in the Navy, his mother’s death in 2016, and the mistreatment of veterans. Though these have always been focal points in Bryan’s movements, they are most present in his earlier, darker projects. “East Side of Sorrow” is a highlight of the album as Bryan showcases his ability to write songs that are relatable and poignant while also capable of charting upbeat, optimistic tracks rather than somber album-fillers.
Save for the feature tracks, “Fear and Friday’s” is the song off Zach Bryan most suitable for radio play. Still, it is far from a shallow pop-country hit. Here, Bryan speaks of a fleeting relationship that he fears is nearing its end. It starts slow and crescendos with a catchy chorus featuring a violin, a drum kit, and a looped electric guitar riff. Most of Zach Bryan is sonically different from Bryan’s past projects with a sound splitting the difference between the booming power of American Heartbreak and the acoustic melodies of his earlier projects. “Fear and Friday’s” tips that balance, with a sound that might be more at home on American Heartbreak. Still, every album needs a hit.
In a departure from earlier projects, four tracks on Zach Bryan feature guest artists. These artists are The War and Treaty, Sierra Ferrell, Kacey Musgraves, and The Lumineers. “Holy Roller (feat. Sierra Ferrell)” and “I Remember Everything (feat. Kacey Musgraves)” are the most memorable of these tracks.
The names Zach Bryan and Kasey Musgraves beside each other on a song alone designs it for streams, but “I Remember Everything” might be the best track on Zach Bryan. The alt-country pair speak of a failing relationship, addressing each other through trading verses. It’s moving and personal. Though it lacks the force of “Fear and Friday’s,” the pair compliment each other in a slow-yet-memorable ode to love’s end. “I Remember Everything” is perhaps the most accessible song on Zach Bryan—though no track is particularly inaccessible—and will likely be featured on country radio and alt-country playlists for years to come.
Bryan is yet to release a flawed project. Every song he performs live is met by enthusiastic fans singing along to every word, and renditions of Zach Bryan will follow suit. The album is a perfect next step for an artist riding an exceptional start to the 2020s, and Bryan has once again successfully executed an evolution of a sound that needs no improvement. Zach Bryan fits nicely into his discography as his major-label sophomore project and tailors both to fans of his earlier, somber work and his new, arena-filling sound. Zach Bryan has no dull or throwaway tracks, as each are as well written as they are catchy and capable of being someone’s favorite. Bryan’s unprecedented transformation from underground cult-fan-favorite to bonafide country star has been incredible to witness, and Zach Bryan will only accelerate his career to new heights.