When it comes to the mostly country Zac Brown Band, the headlines speak for themselves. All three of their previous studio albums have gone platinum, and they’ve sold out shows at venues like Fenway Park and the Hollywood Bowl. Dave Grohl, who produced the 2013 EP The Grohl Sessions, Vol. 1, has taken a particular liking to their signature twang, featuring them on the Nashville episode of Foo Fighters’ road trip rockumentary, Sonic Highways. They’ve earned 55 nominations at major award shows (including the Grammys and the Academy of Country Music Awards), and they were tapped to play the 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. People go apeshit over this band, and not just in red states. So, if I cringe a little every time I hear the opening strains of “Chicken Fried” or “Goodbye in Her Eyes” on some bar jukebox, there’s got to be something my elitist ears are missing, right?
Thankfully, but also a little chaotically, Jekyll + Hyde, the band’s fourth studio album, veers into more ambitious territory than those two country radio staples. Some of it jells and some of it falls flat, but its risk-taking is its most admirable feature.
The band’s musical chops are never in question — Brown can shred, as anyone sitting in even the farthest row of one of the band’s stadium shows can undoubtedly attest to — and they employ them in a number of creative ways, from the minor-key bridge of fiddle-heavy lead single “Homegrown” to “Mango Tree”, a swing number featuring Sara Bareilles. “Mango Tree” has a decidedly “Fly Me to the Moon” feel, and even if you’re skeptical of the gimmick, it’s hard not to enjoy the versatility of Brown’s smooth vocal delivery. “Homegrown” is built around the refrain “I got everything I need, and nothing that I don’t,” and while it probably won’t be winning any awards for lyrical innovation, it coheres well. Pleasurable moments are scattered throughout the album like treasure hunt prizes, but there are equally cringe-worthy finds, like the driving beat behind opening track “Beautiful Drug” that kicks in halfway through. The remix is almost certainly coming to a club near you.
The Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy is undoubtedly meant to represent the conflict between Zac Brown Band’s more and less traditionalist sides. The heavier parts, like the raging “Heavy Is the Head”, a collaboration with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell that’s sitting at No. 3 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, are competent, if not exactly groundbreaking. Innovation reaches its peak on “Junkyard”, a carefully crafted, slow-burning, fantastical song that chronicles a hardscrabble childhood and transforms Brown’s voice into something ethereal. Once it’s over, it’s hard not to wish for an album full of whatever that was.
Whatever they sound like on a given track, Zac Brown Band’s reputation of bucking the Nashville status quo will undoubtedly only deepen after the release of this all-over-the-map record. “We’ve never had any corporate support from Nashville; we’ve always been looked at as outsiders,” Brown said in an interview with Rolling Stone. The problem with Jekyll + Hyde is that, with a few exceptions, a listener equally unfamiliar with the band and its role in the Nashville music scene can barely hear the difference.
Essential Tracks: “Junkyard”, “Homegrown”