My relationship with the Zac Brown Band has been a storied one, and this is one time I’m not even going to try and separate my thoughts as a reviewer from my thoughts as a fan because I’ve been a loyal Zac Brown Band fan from the very beginning. I loved their first three albums and their experimentation with Dave Grohl. When Jekyll + Hyde came out of left field, with its genre-hopping and sending EDM songs to country radio, I was less than enthused by it, especially after Uncaged. However, I should say that that album had some very fine tracks, and more than anything else, my issues with it had to do with the length, as well as the way it felt like a Zac Brown solo project and not the Zac Brown Band. There wasn’t enough fiddle, there weren’t enough harmonies, and even though there are some really standout tracks on that record, it’s just not the Zac Brown Band. So yeah, as a fan, I wanted them to return to their roots–no, not necessarily to country, but just to being the Zac Brown Band again.
So, it is with mixed feelings that I write this, after giving Welcome Home several listens. You have to give Zac Brown credit; he listened to the uproar from his extremely loyal fans and basically did a 180, reversing the band back to their country roots. Hell, the first song off this thing is even called “Roots,”–and that’s where the problem with this starts. It’s all so calculated and forced, and you can tell, at least for much of this record, that even though Zac’s catering to his fans instead of lying to them, his heart is not in this. That’s why I can’t separate my thoughts as a reviewer because most of these songs aren’t really that bad. Yeah, there’s some weak lyrical content, in “Real Thing” especially–that line “genuine, made in the USA” almost screams contrived. “Family Table” suffers from weak lyrics too, and it’s also just a little cheesy; it’s another case of the band taking this whole getting back to their roots thing too far. I could say all that, and it’s all true. But that’s not ultimately my problem with this record. My problem is I don’t hear the passion and heart in Zac Brown throughout this record that I used to on his earlier albums and yes, that I did in places on their last album. Ultimately, an artist should make the music they want, fans be damned, and I’m just not sure Zac Brown is anymore. That’s no excuse for releasing “Beautiful Drug” to country radio, especially after he said he wouldn’t, but making music like this just to appease his fans isn’t the answer either, even if I’m one of the fans who wished for it.
Despite that, there are some really good things about this album. The fact that they did a 180 of course means that once again, you hear harmonies and fiddles, and they do sound like a band. That’s refreshing to hear, and this album is very consistent throughout. As songs themselves, some of these are really solid and even great–in fact, it reminds me of a debut album, where it’s not perfect, but you can see potential. It’s just that we know what this band is capable of, so it goes back to being calculated and not living up to the potential of the band.
And then you have those moments where their passion does shine through, like on “Start Over,”–yes, we always have one beach song on every Zac Brown Band album, but if we didn’t, would that be right? This one is about getting back to a good place in a relationship with a lover and getting away to the beach. It’s one place where they all sound like they’re having fun and enjoying what they’re singing about. I can also hear that in “Long Haul” and “Your Majesty,” both of which are nice love songs and definitely an improvement over the filler love songs on their last album. “My Old Man” is another standout, featuring lots of nice harmonies, acoustic guitar, and fiddle. That cover of John Prine’s “All the Best” is exceptional, and it’s here, on the album closer, that I can really hear the passion in Zac Brown that came out in their earlier songs. Actually, if we’re being honest, I didn’t know it was a cover at first, and Zac Brown made me believe this song when I heard it.
There’s not really a bad song here, and even on the weaker tracks, it’s still nice to hear the harmonies and the country instrumentation. I’m glad to see the Zac Brown Band once again sounding like a band. But it’s glimpses of what they could be, popping up to remind you what they’re like when they’re all fully engaged, which ultimately just make this album a nice, pleasant listen instead of a great, victorious return to form for them. I still enjoy it because at the end of the day, they make some fine music, and I’m also just a Zac Brown Band apologist. But I want to hear more than good songs, I want to hear the heart and soul of this band and Zac Brown, and I don’t on this record, at least not on most of it. And as a Zac Brown Band fan, I’m going to listen to Welcome Home quite a lot, and it will probably grow on me because I just like them–but I’m going to go ahead and say it before my bias as a fan clouds my judgment. If Zac Brown’s heart lies in EDM music, or rock music, or anywhere outside his roots, then that’s where he should be, and I’m starting to think that despite this album’s name, home might not be where he wants to be anymore.