Here's the thing. Zac Brown Band is talented enough to get away with anything. Those who scratched their heads at 2015's multi-headed, multi-genre global success Jekyll + Hyde? Psh, let them scratch.
Or, maybe not.
Though the band saw tremendous success on the record -- it spawned 4 No. 1 singles (including one on the rock charts) and sold nearly 700,000 copies in the United States alone -- you could sense a certain need for Brown and company to assure fans they didn't "forget where they came from."
Because while their fourth record felt like an earnest attempt at capturing the eclecticism of their live show, this fifth record feels like the band cautiously reeling back in their less forgiving country faithful. And really, since Brown announced the record, that was the selling point. "Zac Brown Band is 'returning to their roots.'" It turns out that means writing songs that literally talk about their roots.
Welcome Home feels like the kind of record that the band truly, sincerely means. It's almost a love letter to the band's families, fans and own history. There's no denying the heart in "2 Places at 1 Time," or the earnest struggle and appreciation in "Roots."
But it also feels incredibly safe. Every now and then, we hear the band explore the kind of tangent that really shows their musicianship and cleverness. (The bridge of "Family Table" is a great example).
But the band settles in comfortable lyrical territory wrapped in tried and true country melody schemes. You won't get grimy tales of abuse or heartbreaking stories of lost soldiers like on Jekyll + Hyde. But you'll get plenty of praise for simple living and ample loving -- both worthy subjects and true staples of the Zac Brown Band's sound. And yet the short 10-track offering seems almost too pigeonholed in its tone.
Backtracking on Eclecticism
While some criticized Jekyll + Hyde as too eclectic (an accusation they could easily lob at some of the great bands in history, including The Beatles, Eagles and Queen), Welcome Home kind of pulls a complete 180. Much of the Dave Cobb-produced record leaves the stomp boxes in the closet.
And for the first time listening to a Zac Brown Band record, there's no obvious slam dunk single. Of course, that may not matter -- "My Old Man" is literally the anti-radio song and it's quickly making its way up the charts.
Singing the praises of the "Real Thing" or a "Family Table" almost feels a little like a major league slugger playing tee ball. The execution is near flawless, but there's not much excitement in hearing the band deftly pick the low-hanging fruit of country living tropes. Remember when Brown tore our hearts out singing about custody battles ("Highway 20 Ride") and weather-worn love ("Colder Weather")? This new body of work never quite reaches for those depths.
Welcome Home certainly finishes strong though, probably saving the best three songs for last. "Your Majesty" may serve well as a next single, while the duet "Trying To Drive" offers some of the most compelling lyrics on the whole album. Brown and pop singer Aslyn have been singing that song together for years, and even have a prior version on Aslyn's 2010 record The Dandelion Sessions.
And then Brown wraps up by singing John Prine's "All The Best" with Kacey Musgraves. Including the bittersweet ballad is probably the best decision the band made this go around.
We definitely won't go as far as to say Welcome Home is apologetic for the band's well-noted passion for musical adventure. And honestly, the "Zac Brown Band returns to its roots" narrative will absolutely work with fans.
But it does ultimately feel like a gentle prodding reminder that these guys cut their teeth the hard way, and they haven't lost sight of what that matters. Why they felt that way may be in part internal personal pressure, and it may be in part mixed reviews from 2015.
Weighed against its peers (namely other Zac Brown Band records), the latest effort veers towards too reserved. But weighed against the average mainstream country record, Welcome Home is obvious A-plus material.