Review Summary: Guitars and emotions
I remember how ecstatic I was when my parents bought me my first smart phone. I was a bit late to the boom of micro-technology, so the eventual possession of items such as iPhones, bluetooth, fire sticks, and echo dots filled me with the sort of excitement that could have only been preceded by deprivation. A lot has changed since my teenage years, though. Now I’m over thirty, and I find myself confusing my servant robots (Alexa, Siri). I work within a massive technology corporation and deal with computers every hour of every day. When I’m at home, anything from dimming a light to changing the thermostat can be accomplished via voice command. Oddly enough, the more I immerse myself in the technological spoils of our age…the more I want out. Media in all of its forms has saturated the world and I can’t seem to adequately escape it. Sometimes, I find myself desiring a life that’s less lavish and digitized. I want something to feel real again.
What I love about Zach Bryan is that he’s possibly the most genuine, down-to-earth musician I’ve ever heard. He’s turned down several major labels and high profile producers to continue writing music with his rag-tag collection of hometown friends. His debut album, DeAnn
, which paid tribute to his late mother, was recorded in a Florida Airbnb as he strapped mattresses against the wall to reduce noise complaints. Elisabeth
was recorded using his laptop in a horse barn behind his house. Make no mistake, though: the absence of labels, merchandise, and professional equipment is intentional. Bryan loves his music, family, and hometown – and he wants nothing to do with writing a number one hit. He even directly rebukes the idea on ‘Heading South’ (“they’ll never understand that boy and his kind, ‘cause all they comprehend is a fucking dollar sign”) and ‘Me and Mine’ (“we started this thing grinnin' boys, I think we've gotta run – the radio man came to fuck it up as he boasts about number ones”). Zach Bryan is the less is more
axiom personified, and when it comes to authenticity, he’s the real deal. His music is the perfect escape from a society that has become more sensationalized, digitized, and polarized than ever before.
Bryan isn’t the only artist who has taken this approach, but very few have sounded as good as him while doing it. The bare-bones tactic only works if there’s an abundance of vocal, instrumental, and lyrical talent – and Bryan embodies it all. His voice recalls a shyer, raspier, and pitchier Jason Isbell. His acoustic guitars rattle and echo with the haunting air of Elliott Smith. He writes from the heart, with lyrics about being fast in love (“hope you know the depths I'd go would be insane, for a girl like you who needs trust but needs freedom / who wants love but would be fine on her own / for a girl like you with her daddy's mannerisms / and a soft smile makes the distance less alone / in a world that's full of wanting what is next, I'll stay here with you, Elisabeth”) where Bryan also ties them into memories of his mother, DeAnn (“my mama, she must trust you through and through – ‘cause she left me with a girl like you”). The wondrous thing about Zach’s unspoiled music is that his story has been allowed to unfurl sans interference, and in listening to DeAnn
consecutively, you’ll pick up on callbacks and parallels that make the experience twice as rewarding. It happens throughout Elisabeth
– including ‘From a Lover’s Point of View’, where Zach sings about himself through his partner’s eyes, “you don't have to drink tonight…I'll be prayin' for you and pinin’ for you and hopin’ you get some rest / but from a lover's point of view, it’s all been hard to watch at best…you really got to decide – are you gonna be a good man to me or die the way your mother died?” When you consider that DeAnn died from alcoholism, the entire song transforms into a heartbreaking plea. It’s the sort of emotional impact that could only come from context, something that Bryan’s rich lyrics and open-book life affords us.
Musically, there’s nothing about Elisabeth
designed to captivate. It’s foggy, lo-fi, and predominantly acoustic. There are times when you’ll have to fight through the bedroom production to get at the heart of a song – a losing battle for many, but one worth waging for the few who have the patience to endure eighteen straight acoustic Americana ballads. Almost comically for those who may be approaching Elisabeth
with no prior experience, it’s actually more sonically fleshed out than its predecessor DeAnn
, which was even rawer and less adorned. Here, Bryan – however rarely – accents his songwriting with a lone harmonica (which really adds to the barren ‘Messed Up Kid’ verse “I guess old men on the street prove that time really does fly”), or the layered vocals and jaunty pianos of the closing ‘Revival’ – an ode to partying with the guys: “Lord forgive us my boys and me…baptize me in a bottle of Beam and put Johnny on the vinyl.” With a gentler stroke, you can hear the crackling of a fire behind the unrequited love of ‘Loom’, where Bryan opens his heart with a simple but pointed message (“how would I say that the man you're laying with is not the man that should be laying there?”) and paints a harrowing image of slinking away in defeat: “while you're dancing with the charmers in the room, I'll slip out that door like I have a time before – and just let that lost loving loom.” These sparse moments of accentuating melody help bring Elisabeth
to life, whereas its core is deeply burrowed in Bryan’s love-struck but oft-pained inflections, floating on the unwavering strums of an old acoustic guitar.
is an experience that requires your immersive attention to detail, as well as repeated listens to fully appreciate. After all, you don’t pick up on the nuances of someone’s personality – as well as all of their memories and life story – simply by going out for one drink. You’ll need to court this album, but the payoff is enormous when it finally clicks. In this way – along with its bare assembly and raw production – Elisabeth
is sort of the antithesis of modern society. No songs here are immediate enough to be on a Spotify-curated playlist. There are few souls in existence that will hear this record once and proclaim it an immediate favorite. It’s not catchy or aesthetically pleasing. None of its songs are ever going to chart. The experience is closer to reading someone’s journal – it takes time and effort, but by the time you finish, you feel like you know the person. That’s Zach Bryan’s brand: both DeAnn
are immensely private records, and he’s simply putting himself out there for those who care to listen. No labels, no frills, no strings attached. Just guitars and emotions.