Zach Bryan has become a formidable force in the country music scene and his new EP Boys of Faith builds on his established introspective lyricism.
Bryan’s songs are not like the party-themed country songs that make up Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line’s discography, but rather are displays of the constellation of emotions inside his head. Boys of Faith, released at midnight on Sept. 22, is a nostalgic look at what it means to grow up as a boy and eventually a man.
The first track, “Nine Ball,” is Bryan’s exploration of the trope of the gambling man. This figure comes in the form of his father.
“My father was a bettin’ man / But I got myself a steady hand,” Bryan sings on “Nine Ball.”
Bryan examines his father’s gambling and the effect it had on him and his upbringing. In particular, he talks about avoiding the same path his father went down.
“You’ll probably be nothin’ but this town’s old drunkard and die on a smoke-stained stool / But right now, he’s got a bargain that he’s taken too far on his boy’s game of nine-ball pool,” Bryan sings.
It seems that his father’s gambling extended into his son’s life, becoming a cloud that loomed over their relationship. Musically, “Nine Ball’” features Bryan on harmonica, a touch that he reserves for only some of his songs about growing up and maturing, such as “Mine Again.”
The second track, “Sarah’s Place” is a collaboration between Bryan and Noah Kahan, two of the most popular names in the music industry right now. “Sarah’s Place” features incredibly evocative images of traveling, change, loss, and the nostalgia of how things used to be.
“Don’t come back, lover, I’m proud you’re under the skyline / We always knew you were the better half of our good times / Those backyard lights don’t shine as bright without your face / Out at Sarah’s Place,” Bryan and Kahan sing.
The “lover” to whom the song is directed is the light of the times they all spent together. While nostalgic for those times, the song also acknowledges that change can be good, though painful. The guitar in “Sarah’s Place” is very folkish and mimics the up-and-down patterns of traveling. The guitar solo after the first chorus is reminiscent of John Mayer and the Grateful Dead, whom Bryan references in his fourth track, “Deep Satin.”
“Deep Satin” features a story of being away from home and traveling to see a lover. Bryan references “Friend of the Devil” by the Grateful Dead and then weaves its lyrics and story into his own.
“Is there a chance you’re thinkin’ of me? / Is that song stuck in your head? / “Friend of the Devil” by the Dеad, ” Bryan sings, asking his former love whether she still thinks of him.
Just like the narrator in “Friend of the Devil” is haunted by his past transgressions, Bryan is haunted by his former love.
“There’s no hounds or child around / But the Devil follows where I go,” he sings, as compared to the Grateful Dead’s lyrics.
“A friend of the devil is a friend of mine / If I get home before daylight / Just might get some sleep tonight. … Got a wife in Chino, babe, and one in Cherokee,” the Grateful Dead sings on “Friend of the Devil.”
This mirroring of the Grateful Dead’s lyrics emphasizes the inescapable nature of someone you used to love. Additionally, the horns featured on the track give it a cinematic feel, as if the devil of the one he loved will chase him throughout the movie of his life.
The EP’s eponymous song “Boys of Faith” is another collaboration, featuring Bon Iver. Both Bryan and Iver have incredibly soulful voices, fitting for a song about growing up and remembering those who got you through the tough times. Bon Iver’s music has an all-encompassing quality about it, as if the listener is totally enveloped in his voice and the instrumentation, and some of that comes through in “Boys of Faith.”
Boys of Faith is yet another fine example of Bryan’s emotionally intelligent lyricism and masterful storytelling. The country music industry will likely be changed by his approach to music, particularly his willingness to be vulnerable and explore his roots.
“Pain, Sweet, Pain,” the final track on the EP, is a standout. The fiddle and drum beat make the track sound like an older country song, with very prevalent folk roots. The fiddle’s opening melody calls to mind Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” a Southern rock classic known for its fiddle and storytelling.
Bryan tells a different kind of story in “Pain, Sweet Pain,” namely, he speaks to himself in times of trouble.
“You’re so tired, but the top is nigh / Keep on goin’, you’ll soon arrive / Pain, sweet pain, let’s learn somethin’ from it,” Bryan sings, encouraging himself to keep moving forward and learn from the hard times.
Bryan acknowledges to himself that he has been fighting and dealing with various struggles for years, but reminds himself that there is much to be learned from difficult experiences. Bryan is helping to establish a new trend in the country genre: the country man not being afraid of talking about what he’s been through and how it’s changed him.