Album Review

Zach Bryan - The Great American Bar Scene

Bryan finds silver linings in sad stories and simplicity in the mundane parts of living, displaying a level of maturity only attainable through coming of age.

Album - The Great American Bar Scene - Zach Bryan
July 9, 2024 4:37 pm GMT
Last Edited July 11, 2024 9:59 am GMT

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Zach Bryan - The Great American Bar Scene

Label: Belting Bronco / Warner Records

Producers: Zach Bryan

Release Date: July 4, 2024

Tracklisting:

1. 'Lucky Enough'

2. 'Mechanical Bull'

3. ‘The Great American Bar Scene

4. ‘28

5. ‘American Nights

6. ‘Oak Island

7. ‘Purple Gas’ (ft. Noeline Hofmann)

8. ‘Boons

9. 'The Way Back'

10. ‘Memphis, The Blues’ with John Moreland

11. ‘Like Ida'

12. 'Bass Boat'

13. ‘Better Days’ (Featuring John Mayer)

14. 'Towers'

15. ‘Sandpaper’ (ft. Bruce Springsteen)

16. 'Northern Thunder'

17. 'Funny Man

18. 'Pink Skies'

19. 'Bathwater'

Four old film photos of friends in bars bleed into one another on the artwork of Zach Bryan's new album, The Great American Bar Scene. These snaps, taken from his grandma's memory box, give the first impression that this is a nostalgic record full of recollections.

In this work, Bryan has opened his inner monologue, sharing his unspoken thoughts and most brutal internal battles during a life on the road, one rarely ever home. Whether he's in his hometown or far away on tour, Bryan has found comfort in the classic American bar culture, and the stories kept within its walls.

The record chronicles Bryan's compelling journey from a trainee Navy SEAL to a country music superstar, the loss and grief he experienced along the way, the lessons taught by his adolescence and the joy and relief the great American bar scene supplied along the way. After all, what's more relatable than unwinding worries and troubles at the local?

Through social media Bryan took us along for the ride, documenting the making of The Great American Bar Scene through behind-the-scenes snippets. It's clear this album was no easy feat - particularly with many unavoidable late nights and long days on the road. On album release day, Bryan wrote on social media, "I'm glad this chapter happened, but I'm more glad that it's coming to an end," outlining just how gruelling it was to produce.

The Great American Bar Scene was not made for blowouts and barbecues (although it's only a matter of time before we hear it blaring from campsites and backyards). Entirely produced by Bryan himself, this album is hewed by musically driven nerds, each as committed to their craft as the other. This record could be his best work yet, one that could live on for decades beyond our era. Time is the only determiner.

The entire album comes fully loaded with harmonica (great), copious string plucking (vital), and just the right amount of guitar solos (excellent), filling our almost empty Zach Bryan cups. However, he’s also given us different tipples to try - serving more musical variety than ever with the mix of Springsteen's Rock n Roll background, the jazzy effects of Mayer and the refreshing technical aspect of Chris Braun's virtuoso guitar skills.

The Great American Bar Scene opens with a poem that scratches our lingering Dead Poets Society itch. 'Lucky Enough (Poem)' sets the scene with a bit of tough love and some rough and raw accounts—outlined by gratitude and tied up with hope: “If I'm lucky enough, I will get through hard things // And they will make me gentle to the ways of the world”.

The following 18 tracks reflect an underlying acceptance of life's struggles. Bryan finds silver linings in sad stories and simplicity in the mundane parts of living, displaying a level of maturity only attainable through coming of age. A simple reminder that an artist's work grows with them, and we’ve grown with Bryan.

The tracks—each penned like an open letter—alternate between direct messages to people he's lost or loved or questions for the universe to answer: "Do you think God's a person or the blinking lights? // They reflect in her eyes while she walks these streets at night" Bryan hums against soft acoustic strums and soothing whistles in 'Towers', before an enchanting gospel choir joins him for a powerful chorus.

Bryan's fascination with film photography and the pitfalls of this digital age has become ever more prominent in his lyricism. In 'Mechanical Bull,' he sings," There's a smile on a photo catchin' dust in your old apartment // Are the old ways dead, livin' in my head?" In 'Memphis; The Blues,' he preaches, "Pictures on the wall sat it all with the kinda conviction, make a river burn." The Oklahoma native’s struggles with modern-day media are conveyed in 'Ida', as he belts, "And that bullshit you see on the late-night TV is a long way from our beatin' hearts". Ironically, he took to Twitter, confirming the song was about social media apps, saying they “don't know or own you”.

Parts of this album feel slow and slightly jaded; Bryan is unafraid to leave space for instrumentals to give time for thought between lyrics. It's the best way for Bryan to express his emotions surrounding the last few years of finding fame and success.

Uncomfortably honest and chest-tightening lyrics express Bryan's pain and the dark side of becoming a celebrity, as he sings to his late mother on 'Northern Thunder', "Please don't ask me how these last years went / Mama I made a million dollars on accident / Well, I was supposed to die a military man".

In 'Better Days,' he confesses, "I'm still findin' out who the hell I am // And I'm so tired of wastin' it away // Gonna find the time to realise //I'm deep on better days." Despite some of the realizations in this song, there's a hopeful and happy vibe to this tune; you can almost hear Bryan smiling.

The album concludes with one of life’s bigger questions, "Woke up on the wrong side // Of a lifelong fight between // Who I was, who I am, which one's right?". If there's one thing Zach Bryan can do easily, it's communicate his utmost difficult emotions in a way that makes millions of people want to sing along in unison.

But has his deep contemplation of existentialism worked this time? Perhaps he could have cut the album slightly shorter or cleaned up a few tracks, but Bryan's fearless diversions are what set him apart.

Although some may be left disappointed by the lack of gee-ups and rowdy ragers, Bryan didn’t set out to make a ‘Revival II’. These songs all have the foundation to eventually be obscenely roared out from boozers to stadiums.

As he reminds us of the beauty in the boring and encourages us to grab our beers through tears and fears, this ode to America is bound to be heard around the world.

9/10

Zach Bryan's 2024 album, The Great American Bar Scene, is out now via Belting Bronco / Warner Records.

For more Zach Bryan, see below:

Written by Gemma Donahoe
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