Review Summary: The Elliott Smith of country music delivers another worthy gem.
Zach Bryan has been making waves lately. His 2019 debut LP DeAnn
was a touching and all-acoustic ode to his deceased mother. Elisabeth
saw him expound upon that success in 2020 with an eighteen-track record of profound depth and romance. He’s earned a dedicated cult-following despite reportedly turning down multiple offers from labels while also serving in the active duty Navy. His albums run together and tell a distinct story of how he lost his mother to alcoholism, struggles with addiction himself, and worries about inflicting that same pain on those he loves. He’s the type of artist and person who’s all too easy to rally around, and now he has bestowed yet another gem worthy of our attention: the Quiet, Heavy Dreams
Quiet, Heavy Dreams
clocks in at twenty-one minutes spanning six songs, but it’s more consequential than its transient length suggests. It embodies Zach Bryan from every possible angle: he tears himself apart (“I will leave you broken and in ruins / Call you when the work’s through just to find out what you're doin' / So I can let you down for the hundredth last time”) and sings directly to his mother DeAnn (“Dear Mama, if I could hold you I'd grab you by the arms / Tell you what it means / You could take a worthless poor boy from the flats and make him mean something”). The songs are still largely acoustic – with the title track and ‘November Rain’ serving as two of his most emotional ballads to date – but he also continues the very gradual trend that Elisabeth
started of introducing richer accents. ‘Traveling Man’ features extensive harmonica, for example, while both that and ‘Crooked Teeth’ employ layered group harmonies. The production here also shows steady improvement over Bryan’s two full-lengths, despite his continued avoidance of labels. Rather than asserting itself as a totally unique venture compared to DeAnn
, Quiet, Heavy Dreams
primarily shores them up and serves as affirmation that neither release was a flash in the pan.
As Zach Bryan continues his highly successful underground career, he unwittingly positions himself to become the modern day country/Americana incarnation of Elliott Smith. His savant-like songwriting capabilities, acoustic foundation, iconic voice, and lyrical depictions of substance abuse and death draw the parallels themselves. This EP seems to punctuate the initial chapter of his career, cementing his approach while enriching its sonic qualities. A man of Bryan’s natural talent knows few bounds, but expecting him to transform who he is for the sake of expanding his audience simply isn’t in his DNA. Zach loves identifying as a simple man with plain aspirations, hailing from rural hills in the middle of nowhere and making no bones about it. While a sonic evolution doesn’t appear to be anywhere on the horizon, it’s safe to bet that Bryan will find a thousand different ways to break our hearts and put them together again with nothing more than his words and guitar. It’s as he sings on ‘Quiet, Heavy Dreams’: “I’ll just saw away and let the maul fall to the ground.”