After establishing themselves as one of the leading bands in Country music, Zac Brown decided to step outside of their comfort zone on the 2015 release Jekyll + Hyde. The album received a mixed reception from long-time fans while others who were new to the band praised their new sound. In 2016 frontman Zac Brown started side project Sir Rosevelt so he could continue to explore his interests outside of Country music. 2017 saw the band back together for new album Welcome Home, which appeared to be a return to their roots with a folksier and rootsier sound, and fans breathed a sigh of relief.
Well that feeling of relief shouldn’t last too long because The Owl is the band’s most experimental record to date, encompassing pop, EDM, R&B and even rap. There are barely any traces of Country across the record and a few listens through tells me this record is going to split fans right down the middle. The singles released ahead of the album are misdirects. Someone I Used to Know has a Country heart but the production takes it into EDM territory, something that didn’t sit well with long-time fans of the band. Second track Leaving Love Behind, which is easily the best thing here, is a stripped-down piano-ballad that reminds you how good the band can be when they’re on form.
Of the three tracks released ahead of the album, Warrior is probably the most representative of the record. Stuttering electronic beats dominate as the production overwhelms and subdues Brown’s usually strong vocals. The sentiment of the song is nice but it gets lost in the gimmicks and tricks of the production.
The Owl opens with the beat-driven The Woods and it sounds more One Direction than it does Zac Brown Band. There’s some awkward speak-rapping going on during the verses, something that crops up a few times across the record. Need This continues to push the band’s sound into directions I’m sure not many of their fans actually wanted. I’m not going to deny the song’s catchy but is it what we want to hear from the band? I suspect not.
Elsewhere on the record things get frustratingly more clunky. The down-with-the-kids titled OMW (which stands for On My Way) is an electro-pop song about pocket-dialling someone. I thought I’d misheard something in the lyrics but sadly I hadn’t. Even worse is the cringe-inducing God Given where Brown attempts to rap about how fine a woman is. Had this arrived pre-MeToo it may have been a fun track but now it comes off completely tone deaf.
In the middle of the mess and over-production, there are a couple of gems. Brandi Carlile continues her quest to save Country music by featuring on Finish What We Started. While it’s hardly traditional Country, it’s at least listenable, which is more than can be said for much of the record. Me and the Boys in the Band recalls the band’s Country roots too in a fun and uptempo way and Already On Fire, while not the most memorable track, at least mixes a 70s Fleetwood Mac style instrumentation into the mix but then ruins it with a Vincent Price on Thriller style distorted vocal bit in the middle.
Sadly The Owl just isn’t a very good record. Zac Brown Band have shown what they can do in the past and this set of songs doesn’t come close. If this were the debut album of a new pop band, it may be received kindlier but this is a misjudged project from a beloved Country band that attempts to push boundaries but will likely just turn their fans off. It’s a shame, especially when the beautiful Leaving Love Behind is the closer and it deserves so much better than being part of this record.
Track list: 1. The Woods 2. Need This 3. OMW 4. Someone I Used to Know 5. Me and the Boys in the Band 6. Finish What We Started (feat. Brandi Carlile) 7. God Given 8. Warrior 9. Shoofly Pie 10. Already on Fire 11. Leaving Love Behind Record label: BMG Release date: 20th September 2019 Buy The Owl