Has Zac Brown gone rogue from country music? That seems to be the prevailing response among fans on social media, after Brown took the opportunity Thursday night to surprise-drop what’s being billed as “his first pop solo album,” just one week after the Zac Brown Band released a new record that fans were already describing — and in many cases, deriding — as their flagrant pop move.
There may be plenty among Brown’s fan base who are welcoming this change of direction; it’s just hard to find their voices on social media among the chorus of disgruntled fans or curious onlookers asking if the singer is having a midlife crisis or has “lost his mind.”
Brown’s surprise solo album, preemptively titled “The Controversy,” features collaborators from the pop and EDM worlds like Max Martin, Shroom, Benny Blanco, Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd and Sasha Sirota, most of whom also worked on the Brown Band album from seven days prior, “The Owl.”
Already attracting the most attention is a track done with Sirota called “Swayze,” a pop banger with a risible chorus that plays on the premise of ghosting a relationship: “I can’t be your Tom Cruise, bitch, I’m Patrick Swayze / Every time I get a new bitch I need a new bitch / I’m about to ghost on you, Patrick Swayze / Bitch, I’m Patrick Swayze.”
In country traditionalists’ hall of infamy, “Swayze” will sit well alongside the week-old Zac Brown Band track “God Given,” which avoids the B-word in favor of rapped praise along the lines of “Gucci bag, stacks on stacks / Diamonds fill up the champagne glass / Veyron whip, G5 high / You have class that they just can’t buy.”
Tweeted Rolling Stone Country senior editor Joseph Hudak, in response to the release of “The Controversy,” “I like ‘Need This’ [one of the songs from ‘The Owl’], but Zac Brown has lost his mind.”
The previous week’s release, “The Owl,” didn’t receive enough reviews from major critics to be included in Metacritic rankings, but the few outlets that did review the album were mostly country websites that were not pleased.
“Make no mistake, the 2013 knitted beanie version of Zac Brown would lay a vicious beat down on whatever the top-hatted Zac Brown has become today,” wrote Saving Country Music. Quoting the lyrics from “God Given,” the site wrote, “You have to download a douchebag translator app from the Google Store just to understand what the hell this guy is saying. … A busy, disjointed, manic, mutt of a mono-genre effort with absolutely no compass, direction, or general purpose, ‘The Owl’ is the vomiting out of any and all popular music influences mashed together like peanut butter and poodle shit. … I appreciate that Zac Brown has such a passion for electronic music that he’s willing to train wreck his entire career to pursue it, but at some point you have to realize who you are in this world, and Zac Brown is a flubby 40-something whose biggest hit is called ‘Chicken Fried.’ You’re not gonna steal fans from Steve Aoki.”
AllMusic had a somewhat more positive spin. “‘The Owl’ gleams like a shiny new trinket from an upscale mall, its individual songs designed to ease onto any playlist you’d fancy. Nominally country, (the album) often throbs to electronic rhythms and is slathered in synths, to the point where even a funky blues number like ‘Me and the Boys in the Band’ is polished so it could be considered pop. Unlike so many pop moves from country artists, ‘The Owl’ is executed cleverly, never renouncing the core elements of the Zac Brown Band… (But the) fact that a good chunk of the numbers work does not erase how deeply strange this album is.”
The critic who wrote that, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, has not yet followed up with a review of “The Controversy,” but did take to Twitter to post a series of tweets titled “A Midlife Crisis for the Ages,” recounting Brown’s 2016 rock album “Jekyll + Hyde,” followed by his EDM side project Sir Rosevelt, a back-to-roots record, divorce, rap collaboration with Lil Dicky, and now these two polarizing back-to-back projects.
Lost amid some of this blowback is that “The Owl” does include a few songs that at least skew toward country, like a duet with Brandi Carlile, “Finish What We Started,” along with the Southern-fried sexual double entendres of “Shoofly Pie.” And “The Controversy,” somewhat surprisingly, sets aside the big beats at the end of the short (eight songs, 26 minutes) album for a tenderly sung acoustic ballad that showcases Brown’s voice in a way few previous efforts have.
Some fans have pointed to Brown’s management, Scooter Braun’s SB Projects, which took on the band in 2018, as a likely trigger for the change in direction — although with the rock album and EDM side project, Brown had clearly evidenced an interest in crossing genres before ever hooking up with Braun.
There may also be a feeling that now is as good a time as ever for musical explorations, since there’s no crest to interrupt at country radio. Starting with their breakout smash “Southern Fried” in 2008, the Zac Brown Band had an astonishing 13 songs go No. 1 at radio, the last three of which were in 2015. Since then, the group’s radio heat has cooled off. The biggest single from their previous album peaked at No. 14, and the leadoff single from “The Owl,” “Someone That I Used to Know,” topped out at No. 29.
Comparisons have been drawn to the Band Perry, which made a shift to pop in recent years, along with a change in management, that many fans did not receive well. The stakes are bigger, though, for the Brown Band, still one of the biggest acts in country at the touring level.
“The Owl” is expected to debut at No. 1 because of it being bundled with tickets for an upcoming tour, regardless of how divided fans might be about it.
“I’ve always been influenced by all genres and never want to limit myself to a single type of music,” Brown said in a statement announcing the surprise release of “The Controversy.” “This album is an outlet for me to explore pop music, a broad category in its own right, without expectations. ‘The Controversy’ is a reflection of the diversity of sounds that I love, and the culmination of my work with vastly talented new collaborators.”
Some tweets in response to the new album(s):