Four songs into his very ambitious, very serious self-titled album, Zach Bryan anticipates some criticism. “Do you ever get tired of singin’ songs/Like all your pain is just another fuckin’ singalong?” he asks in “East Side of Sorrow,” one of the record’s many full-throated singalongs about a painful subject. By this point in the record, the 27-year-old songwriter has already recited a poem about the nature of fear and included a brief electric guitar interpolation of “The Star-Spangled Banner”; he’s shared a stark reflection on a road trip with a sick loved one and delved into his past as a Navy vet, rhyming “fight a war” with “don’t even know what you’re fighting for.”

It sounds heavy—and it is heavy. So why does Zach Bryan feel like a breath of fresh air? For all his high-stakes musings on life and love and death, sung in a gruff, boyish howl that makes even just the word “child” sound like a stifled sob, Bryan has a lot of fight in him. A growing force on both the country and rock charts, he is a reluctant celebrity whose reluctance only makes him seem more like a celebrity, all while maintaining a focus on songwriting as a pure, unfiltered outlet for telling his story. “I’m too writing-driven to be a big star,” he told The New York Times last year. “I’m not meant for it.” And while he was being interviewed about American Heartbreak, his platinum-selling, star-making, 34-song major-label debut, he does have a point. Self-produced and written almost entirely without co-writers, his follow-up, Zach Bryan, lives proudly in its own world, for better or worse.

Listening to Bryan’s songs, it’s clear why he’s thriving on country radio. Even with his stripped-back arrangements, he’s got a knack for memorable, meaty hooks that take you down the backroads beside him with the radio blasting. This gift is especially evident in “Hey Driver,” whose chorus about small towns and fine women is so big and fun that guest vocalist Michael Trotter Jr. of the War and Treaty can’t seem to stop belting the harmony part, getting louder and more soulful with each repetition. By the end of the song, Bryan has muted his own delivery to an uncharacteristic speak-sing, seemingly distracted by the effect his melodies have on the people around him. You can picture him closing his eyes tightly, imagining how it will feel when the whole crowd joins in.

In moments like these, Bryan sounds like a pop star, but he still works firmly in the lineage of old-school country songwriting. Just the opening verse of “I Remember Everything,” a winning ballad featuring Kacey Musgraves, alludes to rotgut whiskey and an ’88 Ford, daddy and mama, and the inherited wisdom that “grown men don’t cry.” Raised in Oologah, Oklahoma, Bryan never tires of surveying the emotional landscape of his childhood and the effect it’s had on his young adulthood. From his time in the Navy to his unlikely ascent on the charts to the death of his mother in 2016, he has become a master at casting the facts of his life as hard-won pep talks: The proper opener, “Overtime,” is a rousing and self-aware underdog anthem, incorporating the closest thing this album has to a joke with a sample from a recent Barstool Sports fan interview. And yet occasionally Bryan stumbles when placing himself in a larger narrative about old souls in a modern world: “I wish I was a tradesman,” he tries late in the album, “learning from some beat-down old layman.”

For all his traditionalism, Bryan is equally outspoken about what he doesn’t like about country music. He was one of the genre’s only major figures to criticize Morgan Wallen for being racist in the immediate aftermath, and compared to the slick sound of his contemporaries, he prefers the tender setting of live takes and four-track demos. He’s fond of the way his voice sounds clipping in the mic, how the strings of his guitar resonate after the other instruments die out, and how studio banter can give the effect of an impromptu jam session. The wistful closing tracks, “Smaller Acts” and “Oklahoman Son,” could be hits, but the recordings are too lo-fi to find a home on mainstream radio, opting for a scratchy setting to suit his tone of tearful remembrance. From the cozy tape hiss to the muted trumpets throughout, you get the sense that Bryan holds a copy of For Emma, Forever Ago very close to his heart.

This earnest intensity is Bryan’s default setting—a quality that puts him closer to angsty young heartland rockers like Sam Fender rather than fellow country chart-toppers like Luke Combs. As he expands his sound beyond genre confines, he can sell a multi-part epic like “Jake’s Piano – Long Island” and a complexly orchestrated slow-burner like “Ticking.” But he doesn’t yet have the same range in his writing, lyrically or melodically. In one song he rails against acts who compose “songs about nothing” and others fueled by “backdoor deals and therapy,” and Bryan’s obsession with raw, unprocessed emotion sometimes boxes him into a dour, one-dimensional sound. The overall effect of his records can be like binging an entire season of a network drama: one dramatic gesture after another, all delivered with the same minor-to-major gravitas, all gunning for the same emotional response. When he sings a chorus of “I ain’t spotless/Neither is you,” accompanied by the Lumineers, the sentiment feels so meaningless that it might as well come from the same Nashville assembly line that Bryan stands so proudly against.

In the place of these swings toward grand, everyman resonance, I sometimes long for any hint of the renegade spirit of Bryan’s stance against unfair ticket prices, or the irreverent righteousness of calling his first live album All My Homies Hate Ticketmaster. This is why it’s such a relief midway through the record when he enlists his band for “Fear and Friday’s.” They settle on a lighter, looser mood to navigate the album’s themes of desperate nights and broken promises—more The River than Nebraska. “I’ve got a fear, dear, that it’s gonna end,” Bryan sings in the chorus. “Won’t you get angry at me/Say you love me again?” In Bryan’s songs, these big emotions—love and anger, hope and fear—are all tangled up, and getting crushed by their waves is always preferable to feeling nothing at all. If Zach Bryan brings this approach near a breaking point, the fierce determination also ends up being his saving grace. Whatever effect his songs have on you, there’s never any doubt they’re coming from the heart.

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