LAST YEAR, Oklahoma-born singer-songwriter Zach Bryan surprised the pop music scene with his unexpected hit, “Something in the Orange,” a poignant reflection on regret characterized by its minimalistic instrumentation and Bryan’s haunting vocals. Since its ascent to Number 10 on the Hot 100 charts, the 27-year-old Navy veteran has established a unique niche in contemporary popular music. He seamlessly combines Music Row’s catchy storytelling, heartland rock’s unfiltered portrayal of modern Americana, and insurgent country’s return-to-roots principles.
In the spirited track “Overtime,” Bryan croons, “I want to stay humble, and I want to stay hungry.” His latest album, “Zach Bryan,” a follow-up to the double album “American Heartbreak” from the previous year, demonstrates precisely that. Rather than resting on his chart-topping laurels, Bryan uses his success as an opportunity to delve deeper into the intricacies that make his music so captivating. The album comprises 16 tracks, including collaborations with country-pop sensation Kacey Musgraves and folk group the Lumineers. It feels as intimate as a late-night conversation, with Bryan’s knack for crafting concise yet emotionally rich lyrics matched by his voice’s ability to extract the full spectrum of emotions from just a few syllables.
Bryan also takes on the role of producer for the album, showcasing his innate understanding of what makes his songs resonate. He allows them space not only to breathe but to simmer and ache. Stripped-down tunes like the tenderly appreciative “Smaller Acts” (accompanied by the gentle chirping of what sounds like a moonlit porch) and the introspective “Oklahoman Son” accentuate the impact when he does let loose. The heart of the album lies in the two-part suite “Jake’s Piano – Long Island,” beginning with a raw confession of past wrongs. Bryan passionately sings, “The best parts of you are here, but you’re still gone,” while an organ softly hums in the background. The second part blossoms into a fluid, full-band jam with weeping steel guitars, Bryan’s vulnerable voice underscoring the weight of his words: “My mind ain’t well, and I just can’t tell you why.” This self-reflective melancholy avoids self-indulgence, instead delving into the nuances of a person’s darkest moments.
Elsewhere, Bryan collaborates with the soulful Americana duo The War and Treaty on “Hey Driver,” a bittersweet yet hopeful road anthem. Bryan’s vocals and the spirited harmonies of Michael Trotter Jr. from The War and Treaty intertwine in a way that occasionally feels triumphantly optimistic. They find solace in the idea that another place might help them shake off “the ways of this old world.” While Zach Bryan’s music doesn’t shy away from life’s harsh realities, his skillful presentation of his songwriting talents makes this album a truly captivating experience.