“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by”
– Zac Brown during ‘Jekyll & Hyde,’ probably
Welcome Home is not that record. For the Zac Brown Band’s latest, available today, ZB & Co. took the road well-worn, back to the house with the porch light still flickering. It’s a path that’s safe, warm, and snug, a home chock-full of memories of “My Old Man” and nostalgia for the “Real Thing,” with “Roots” that reach deep in the ground. Fans will love it.
But there’s something vaguely disappointing about Brown’s latest. Welcome Home is a return to the sounds, lyrics, and themes that shaped the man and the music – “even when I’m a thousand miles away from my roots, I’m home,” he sings on the lead track. But it feels less like settling into the couch after a long journey and more like being called to supper when there’s still enough daylight to keep playing outside. One can’t help but wonder if Brown, sitting at the “Family Table,” is eyeing the window, where Jekyll & Hyde and Sir Rosevelt are still at play.
When the band released Jekyll & Hyde in 2015, the reception was incredibly mixed. The album (which we called country music’s Graceland), was a sonic stew: big band, rock, EDM, African drums, bagpipes all had their moment on the record. Some people asked for seconds, some spit it out. The main criticism was a divergence from country (an increasingly nebulous genre definition to begin with) and its shameless genre-blending.
The result, one imagines, was a frustrated Brown and, it seems, a musical bifurcation: the Zac Brown Band would appease the outcry and release a record returning them to their expected core, while Zac and Jekyll & Hyde collaborators Ben Simonetti and Niko Moon began Sir Rosevelt, a decidedly un-country side-band to stretch their sonic horizons.
For the most part, it seems to work. Welcome Home is at worst, safe, a collection of songs that don’t particularly excite but sit snugly in their intended roles (with the exception of the islandy “Start Over,” a watered down margarita of a song). “Trying To Drive,” which features the vocals of Madison Ryann, is an exception and an absolute standout, with lyrics like “One wheel, four hands, two hearts trying to understand / how we’re gonna get there when we’re both trying to drive.” Both singers’ vocals are compelling and engaging, and the idea is interesting and strongly executed. “All The Best,” the John Prine cover featuring Kacey Musgraves, shines as well, stripping the original to a raw iteration that leans on the lyric.
That’s not to say that Welcome Home isn’t, well, good. “Family Table” and “Real Thing” employ strong metaphors and imagery, and tap strongly into both homesickness and nostalgia. Throughout the record, Brown’s vocals and the band’s harmonies are as strong as ever, and the instrumentation is A+. It’s an album that will draw repeat listens, especially for those who felt Jekyll & Hyde was a misstep. But there’s a context tapping at the window, presenting a quandary best expressed by Brown himself, “Maybe I’d be satisfied / if I could just divide / and be two places at one time.”
Grab Welcome Home on iTunes or stream below.