Photo Credit: Kristín Braga Wright
Though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from listening to country radio, women have spent the last few years carrying the genre on their backs. While Sam Hunt has been delivering toxically masculine lyrics over awkward genre fusions and Walker Hayes has been making bro-country Applebees jingles, Margo Price has been penning the greatest protest songs of our time and The Higwomen have been creating affecting odes to motherhood, lost loved ones and womanhood.
On his major label debut, American Heartbreak, 26-year-old Oklahoman Zach Bryan does as much as one person could reasonably do to redeem the reputation of men-in-country. Across an exhaustive two hours, Bryan strips back his sound to the core, timeless elements of country rock – a sound questionably labeled as “ronky tonk” by Rolling Stone. What Bryan’s tried and true sound lacks in innovation and individuality, he makes up for in consistency and endurance; with a triple album of 34 songs that range from hugely captivating at best and merely pleasant enough at worst.
American Heartbreak’s big hit is the second track “Something in the Orange” – an endlessly lovely ode to a partner centered around small moments of intimacy (“When you place your head between my collar and jaw // I don’t know much, but there’s no weight at all”). The song swings between emotional extremes – of surrendering entirely to love and being utterly lost in its absence. “How I just hate you // Please turn those headlights around,” he cries in the final chorus, sounding completely adrift and helpless. Jason Isbell is one of Bryan’s biggest musical heroes and “Something in the Orange” is the rare, staggering love song that could go toe to toe with Isbell’s “Cover Me Up.”
There’s nothing else on American Heartbreak that can rival “Something in the Orange” in terms of sheer power and immenseness, but the following 32 tracks still enjoy ample charm. “Ninth Cloud” is an anthemic country-rocker that relies on an easygoing, low-stakes appeal – chronicling nights out and moments of unapologetic hedonism (“After one shot or 22 // And a cigarette, I feel like I’m flying”). In the euphoric refrain, Bryan sings “Them Christians are talking so often of coffins // No Heavens could top this moment.” If this was a pop song, the line would be utterly unremarkable, but in the conservative, Christian country landscape, it feels subtly subversive – demonstrating that while Bryan’s songs may sound timeless, they never sound dated.
The exhausting American Heartbreak would benefit from being trimmed down from a triple album to a double – moments like the “You Are My Sunshine” cover are nice enough but undoubtedly superfluous. Yet, it’s also remarkable how high a quality of songwriting Bryan maintains, even in the album’s final leg. Indeed, it’s in these moments that some of the LP’s greatest moments occur. “If She Wants a Cowboy” provides a rare, endearing moment of levity as Bryan declares, “If she wants a cowboy, I’ll cowboy the best.” “Open The Gate,” meanwhile, succeeds for the opposite reasons. Perhaps Bryan’s heaviest tune to date, it’s addressed to his late father, as he wonders whether he’s doomed to repeat his fate: “Will I die out in Cheyenne with my baby there crying?” It’s a staggeringly moving moment testament to the consistently compelling songwriting that dominates the album’s two hours and makes Bryan one of the most promising country stars of the 21st Century.
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