If the Zac Brown Band, that rag-tag, beanie-wearing, bearded jam-band-with-a-southern-accent was in a cage for their first two impressive albums, maybe they should embrace captivity. On their third album, unfortunately and ironically entitled Uncaged, the band manages to demonstrate their trademark musicianship, sense of humor, stylistic flexibility and commitment to good-time, feel-good jams, while sounding more packaged, processed and vacuous than ever.
What’s missing throughout the balance of Uncaged is the sense of purpose and renegade spirit that set them so far apart from the rest of the modern country world over the last four years. In addition to raucous solos (including Brown’s unique talent for shredding on a nylon-string, classical guitar), the band tempered their PG party songs with morality tales and even a few examples of sagely advice. References to the Lord, faith, family and old-fashioned values roll off Brown’s tongue with convincing ease. Beyond typical “God, Mom and apple pie” sentimentality, Brown’s ethic has always felt authentic and central to his art.
On Uncaged, however, it feels like band has sanded off most of their edges and has seen some of their soul go too. Sure, country music is the music of the working class and one of the primary jobs of the artist is to provide escape. But there’s a way to use music to transcend the banality of a work-a-day life without succumbing to cliche after cliche. Though reggae and calypso elements have informed his songs since day one, the island songs here break no new ground. At best they sound like pleasant ads for Sandals resorts. At worst, as is the case with the cartoonish “Island Song,” they undermine any attempted moments of meaning in the remaining songs. “Beach to my left, sea to my right and I’m a get faded at the tiki bar tonight. Then I’m a roll one up, like my name was Bob. I’m a gonna party like I’m a Jamaican.” Yikes. True, the band’s musicianship and Brown’s engaging, understated voice are strong enough to make even the dumbest lyric go down smoothly, but they seem to have so much more potential than this.
It’s not that Uncaged is bereft of good moments, it’s just that they are too few and too far between. “Sweet Annie” uses the old trucker song model as it tells a mournful tale of a wasted life. It may be one of the best repentance songs in the country canon. “Lance’s Song” is a ballad about a musician who seems to have realized his musical dreams and then found them unfulfilling. The character bemoans audiences who don’t really care about the depth of a song, they just want to “hear the songs they know and fill their bellies full of beer.” What? Like “Island Song?” I wonder if the irony here is intentional.
Even the amazing Amos Lee can’t save Brown and the band from cliches. Their duet, “Day That I Die,” is about that illusive sense of meaning and spiritual purpose in life, but reaches no deeper than the hope that on the day he dies “they find me in my home, guitar in my hands.” Throughout the record rain and wind and the sky and crossroads all serve as well-worn metaphors for the stuff of the spirit, but then “Overnight” uses an extremely catchy melody and convincing R&B track (with help from the incredible Trombone Shorty) to deliver a song that is so sexually provocative and full of inane come-ons that it’s actually creepy.
On Uncaged, the Zac Brown Band burnishes their image as consummate musicians and cultural populists who mean well, but my appreciation for them as a thoughtful, spiritually minded group has taken a hit. They can do better though, and I suspect they will.
What Do You Think?
- What do you make of the Zac Brown Band?
- When can artistic cliches have value?