Zac Brown and his Band take a cue from former country crooner Taylor Swift … by becoming former country crooners themselves. OK, not quite yet. Jekyll + Hyde still boasts some back-home banjoin’, fiddlin’, chicken pickin’ and Alabama-esque harmonizin’. But Mr. Brown and Co. are now belting out songs that sound perilously close to flat-out pop, that even indulge hard rock and electronic dance music flourishes. We hear gospel choirs, African rhythms, Sinatra stylings backed by a big band, Mumford-y claps ‘n’ stomps. One song even sounds like … disco.
The band’s mainstream pretensions are even more evident when we consider the two guest contributors we’re treated to here: Sara Bareilles and Soundgarden/Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell. And what’s that I hear? Licks from Pink Floyd’s “Is Anybody Out There?”
“I’ll Be Your Man (Song for a Daughter)” finds Zac Brown pouring out his wishes for his little girl. Among many tender moments, he tells her, “Go on and dance, dance like there’s no one around/Never stop singing out loud/And until then/I’ll be your man/ … I’m gonna hold you tight under my wing as long as I can.”
Several songs gush over a loved one’s beauty, including “Loving You Easy,” which asserts, “Cross out ‘finding an angel’ off my list/Thinking it don’t get no better than this.” “One Day” says of a couple’s committed connection, “Our flame, it is undying.” “Bittersweet” is a poignant presentation of a man and woman coming to grips with her terminal illness. She says, “Make me feel alive before I go/ … Go and live your life with no regrets/And don’t forget how much I love you.” Equally tear-jerking is “Dress Blues,” a mournful ode to a young soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country, leaving behind a pregnant wife. Brown ponders, “Did you get your chance to make peace with the Man/Before He sent down His angels for you?”
“Tomorrow Never Comes” reiterates the popular country music theme of living each day like it’s your last. With Chris Cornell’s help, “Heavy Is the Hand” ponders the pressure that surrounds leaders who make hard decisions (“Heavy is the head that wears the crown/ … High upon his throne/Loved by few and judged by many/He bears that weight alone”) as well as the process of learning from our past (“It’s a lifelong expedition/Second-guessing your decisions/Trying to find out what’s been missing”). “Remedy” recognizes that love is the key to solving big problems: “Love is the remedy/We’re all in this world together/Life’s a gift that we have to treasure.” Brown counsels, “Pray to be stronger and wiser/Know you get what you give/Love one another/ … God is love one another/Amen.” The song credits Jesus with emphasizing the importance of love. And Brown also notes that other spiritual leaders have echoed that teaching: “Buddha taught it too/Gandhi said eye for an eye/Makes the whole world go blind.” But then …
… Brown lumps all of those religions together with, “Everyone can be forgiven/One love and one religion.”
“Homegrown” exults that “We got a fire going down by the riverside/Sip whiskey out the bottle/Livin’ like we’ll never die.” The mourning man on “Bittersweet” medicates his grief with alcohol. A “Castaway” also imbibes (“Pour me another one/Make it a strong one/ … Take a tropic holiday/ … Pacifico and chasing lime/Easy living down in paradise/ … Make it a double rum”).
“Beautiful Drug” compares a woman’s sensual influence to drug addiction (“Lipstick and heels/Pull me in, hooked like a junkie/ … You’re such a beautiful drug/I can’t get enough/ … Gotta feel that touch/Her kiss, my fix, so sweet/Can’t quit, those lips are a habit to me/Sweet intoxication and I’m never getting sober”). “Loving You Easy” heads into the bedroom with, “Wrapped around me late at night/Pillow talk by candlelight/Gonna slow this down and make it last.” “Young and Wild” cherishes the memory of a teen love affair that included “Parking in the cut/And fogging up the windows/Oh, you made me feel so alive.”
War-weary cynicism on “Dress Blues” yields this line: “What did they say when they shipped you away?/To give all in some god-awful war?” “Junkyard” tells a dark story with an even darker ending; oblique lyrics hint at incestuous rape (“He had a sick little girl, dirty and harmed/ … Got a jar of flies, a father’s disguise/Where his heart should be/A mouth is sown together/She screams with those eyes”). Things aren’t good for Mom, either, so a son determines to rescue her by killing Dad (“I got an old bone pocketknife tight in my right hand/To save my poor mother from the junkyard man/ … He will know he’s not worthy/When he dies alone, you’ll see/That’s his reality”). Afterward, the boy says simply, “I’ve washed my hands, you see/That’s my reality.”
Jekyll + Hyde may sound a tad cliché, but it’s not such a bad title for this release that’s split between so many stylistic genres and lyrical subjects.
Songs affirm faith and love, commitment and sacrifice. Brown deals repeatedly and effectively with the heartbreak of untimely death.
But he also capitulates to tired country tropes like drinking whiskey down by the river, teens making out in cars and a murderous son taking mortal vengeance on a monstrous father. And then there’s the suggestion that all religions eventually lead to the same place.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.