Very nearly schizophrenic in its commitment to genre hopping, Zac Brown Band’s fourth album, Jekyll + Hyde, is a collection of 15 songs that have virtually no business being sequenced together. Despite Zac Brown’s irrepressible corniness as a lyricist, and that the group doesn’t particularly excel at most of the styles they dive into headfirst here, there’s something fascinating about such a popular act having made an album that not only doesn’t play it safe, but unfolds with complete and utter incongruity.
Brown and company know exactly where their bread is buttered: country radio. That much is clear from lead single “Homegrown,” which has already cracked the top of the country chart thanks to its surging chorus and generic lyrics about country livin’. The album’s most interesting country song from a compositional standpoint, however, is a cover of Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues,” an emotionally shattering anti-war song about a young husband, father, and Marine who never came home from the Middle East. Zac Brown Band aren’t able to resist gussying it up a bit too much: The “Taps” quote that’s shoved into the middle of the track, and the changing of some of the politically harder-edged lyrics, suggests the band made an active attempt to whitewash the song’s seething disillusionment to make it more palatable to a general country audience, who will likely only catch on to the Americana signposts (“Flags on the side of the highway and scripture on grocery store signs,” “Red, white, and blue in the rafters,” etc.) and not the subtext. Unfortunately, it’s precisely those changes that will probably get this version played on the radio when Isbell’s comparatively ascetic original version didn’t.
It’s nigh impossible to pick out anything else on Jekyll + Hyde that could be comfortably played on country radio. On one hand, some of experiments fall well outside Brown’s songwriting wheelhouse, like the hideous seven-minute butt rock “Junkyard,” or the vaguely offensive Caribbean-lite “Castaway.” On the other hand, the album is a showcase for what’s clearly a versatile group of musicians, and its strongest five-song stretch turns on a dime from pseudo-gospel with bagpipes (“Remedy”) to pop-country (“Homegrown”) to big band (“Mango Tree”) to heavy K-Rock fodder featuring Chris Cornell (“Heavy Is the Head”) to lilting country-folk (“Bittersweet”). Good luck finding a more batshit succession of songs on another album that comes out this year. The band also practically invents a new genre with “Beautiful Drug” and “Tomorrow Never Comes,” which merge banjo picking with pulsing club-ready electronic choruses. Whether this combination really needed to exist is another matter, but unlike virtually all of their mainstream-country contemporaries, Zac Brown Band at least refuses to continue churning out the same old formula—for better or worse.