Sound — 7
It took a while for Zac Brown Band to break through, but once they did, it was full speed ahead. With their 2008 major label debut album, "The Foundation," putting the band on the map as one of the best new country acts, and their follow-up album, 2010's "You Get What You Give," earning massive acclaim as a standout country album, Zac Brown Band pushed the bar even higher for themselves with their third album, 2012's "Uncaged," where its goal of dabbling with different styles of music in its country home range - including reggae and soul - won a Grammy for Best Country Album in 2013.
After that, however, came the first big stumble in Zac Brown Band's budding discography. Upping the ante once more in terms of sonic exploration, the band's fourth album, 2015's "Jekyll + Hyde" attempted to pair the band's country rock backbone with an even bigger variety of different styles, spanning from Chris Cornell-assisted grunge, to Jack Johnson-esque beach folk. But more than anything, it was panned for its contemporary dance/pop characteristics and an overall production value that was too over-the-top trendy for the band's core country quality.
Zac Brown Band have clearly gotten the message, and their fifth album, "Welcome Home," does everything it can to signal that the band is walking back to the roots of their sound, which that includes the very first country song on the album literally being titled "Roots." In contrast to the flashy production tricks used often in "Jekyll + Hyde," Zac Brown Band keep their arrangements lean and mean, and let the standard country instruments do the talking and walking throughout. Rich piano decorates "Real Thing," warm electric guitar melodies unite with a strong lead fiddle in the Allman Brothers-esque "Family Table," and while not reaching the deft likes of their earlier material, Zac's acoustic fingerpicking nicely drives the gentle "2 Places At One Time," "My Old Man," and his sullen take of the John Prine hit "All The Best."
This recalibration of their country sound may be a good move to make at this point, but if there's any underlying vice with "Welcome Home," it's that it's mostly stuck in a lighter-waving gear. Whether it's the gentle, acoustic-driven tracks, or the more powered songs, like the mellow southern rocker "Long Haul," and Zac's powered duet with Aslyn in "Trying to Drive," the majority of songs on the album crawl at a pace designed for stadium-filling audiences to sway their hands to, which highlights the monotony more than anything. With the folksy, happy-go-lucky singalong of "Start Over" being the only playful song on the album, Zac Brown Band could have helped the album out more by throwing in a rollicking hoedown song, or designated a song to really flex their tough southern rock side.
Lyrics — 7
Among ticking the boxes of lyrical matter Zac Brown has covered before, like the relationship reconciliation of "Long Haul" ("I just wanna believe that we still got it / So let's stop all our fighting and make it work"), and the tropical hedonism in "Start Over" ("Smoke a J by the waves while we sip on some ice cold Corona"), Brown mostly sticks to the theme of cherishing the fundamental things in one's life, similar to the music side's appeal to the band's original country sound. This also shows Brown covering the expected bases of country music lyrics, which can fly too close to the clichéd sun in some cases, like the American-made pride of "Real Thing," which is destined to be used in a car or beer commercial in the near future, and Brown wishing he could simultaneously be at home and jet-setting to wondrous destinations in "2 Places At 1 Time." But from his love letter to his beloved formative years in "Roots" ("When I was 18, bought a Dodge van / Found a drummer and made the road my home"), to the simple but relatable appreciation of a solid upbringing in the generational wisdom of "My Old Man" and the symbol of unconditional love and hospitality in "Family Table," Brown's sincerity shines through.
Overall Impression — 7
In an era where plenty of country's biggest stars have taken the turn towards top 40 pop characteristics and leaving their initial country sound an afterthought, Zac Brown Band seemed like just another act to inevitably emigrate to that pop side of contemporary country music. With "Welcome Home" being a back-pedal to the more cardinal style of country music, it doesn't match the hearty offerings of the band's earlier material, but it does its job well of being a country music palate cleanser for those who were disenchanted with the sugar sweet pop sound of Zac Brown Band's previous album.