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Zach Bryan makes — and breaks — his own myth on 'The Great American Bar Scene'

Zach Bryan's fifth album in five years, <em>The Great American Bar Scene</em>, features love songs, thorny anthems, autobiographical lore and even a mini-arc that directly invokes classic Bruce Springsteen songs.
Keith Griner
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Zach Bryan's fifth album in five years, The Great American Bar Scene, features love songs, thorny anthems, autobiographical lore and even a mini-arc that directly invokes classic Bruce Springsteen songs.

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Zach Bryan is an avid learner, always taking pains to credit his sources. Now a stadium-level star who hears his accounts of 21st century unrest sung back to him by thousands of people every time he performs, he began his music-making life as a Naval petty officer uploading phone videos to YouTube and just wanting to do his idols proud. Even as he found his fan base with original compositions, Bryan has always aligned himself with the peers and elders whom, in his first viral hit, “Heading South,” he identified as his “kind.” His earnest social media posts extolling the genius of Jason Isbell or the Turnpike Troubadours reinforced his image as a sort of male Brandi Carlile, always extending a hand to others even as his own charisma burned a path toward the top of the charts.

On The Great American Bar Scene, his fifth album in as many years within a steady stream of EP’s, singles and live albums, Bryan continues to uphold the community he values above all. He colors his lyrics with references to songs by Tyler Childers and Johnny Cash; brings in the young Canadian troubadour Noeline Hofmann to share vocals on her ballad “Purple Gas”; and gives guest slots to not only John Mayer (predictable) but his fellow Oklahoman and songwriter’s songwriter John Moreland. Often a lonely voice within his own tales of botched romance and anomie, as a performer, Bryan shares space to make the point that legacies only grow through cross-pollination. And on Bar Scene, one influence-turned-friend casts a benign shadow on all the rest: the Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen.

The Boss shows up as Bryan’s duet partner on “Sandpaper,” a love song that ties together yearning and refusal in ways so similar to Springsteen’s own 1984 hit “I’m on Fire” that it almost seems like a writing exercise Bryan assigned himself. It’s an arrogant form of homage, but the younger man earns it — here and throughout The Great American Bar Scene, Bryan makes his case as Springsteen’s favored son by enacting his own version of the slippery authenticity that allowed the greatest rock star of the 1980s to emerge from scrappy roots to become a generational spokesman, reaching a peak with Born in the U.S.A. — an album celebrating 40 years of cultural currency this summer. I’m using the word “slippery” deliberately here. Bryan’s art builds on Springsteen’s method of cleansing old stories of the markers that could make them feel dated and reanimating them in new settings, not just with new clothes but with different voices and particular outcomes.

Examples of this abound in Springsteen’s work, especially from the late 1970s into the mid-1980s. In “State Trooper,” which appears on 1982’s Nebraska and is name-checked by Bryan in Bar Scene’s title track, the iconic Western desert outlaw haunted by vultures’ cries becomes a working man-turned-car thief tormented by the yammering voices on talk radio; “Glory Days” finds a knight stripped of his armor in the form of a high school baseball player drinking himself ever further past his prime.

Most notoriously, Born in the U.S.A.'s titular anthem reanimates the tragedy of the wounded soldier that runs through American culture from Whitman to Hemingway to Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, adjusting it for the Reagan era, when dominant conservative forces were actively working to bury the damage caused by America’s interventions in Vietnam. Like all of those other anti-war patriots, with this song, Springsteen milks the allure of nationalist rhetoric only to defuse it with a story that shows its poisonous effects.

As a mega-hit, “Born in the U.S.A.” made history by being misunderstood: The porousness of its relationship to patriotism made it seem like a nationalist anthem when it was really a protest song. This frustrated Springsteen, who publicly rejected Reagan’s advances and released a John Sayles-directed video humanizing veterans as resilient but suffering. Some stand in line at a payday lender, others laugh at a bar but display their injuries, still more lie buried in generic, white stone-marked graves. Like the song itself, Sayles’ video captured the deep alienation many people experienced as they realized Reagan’s Morning in America only shone brightly on a select few. Conservatives’ misappropriations only reinforced its point, that the slogans blaring forth in the public square were often so much noise pollution, covering up the cries of pain from those unable to forget their realities and join in.

Over 40 years, it’s become clear that “Born in the U.S.A.” matters precisely because it so well represents that disconnect. Springsteen captured a prime quality of the 1980s, the decade he spent as rock’s crossover king: the persistent feeling that the era’s shiny party aura was covering up a stench. The mercenary yuppie optimism much of popular culture reinforced covered up devastating inequities, not only among the mostly white working men Springsteen spoke for but for Black Americans demonized by the “crack epidemic,” queer people dying of AIDS and anyone else who didn’t or couldn’t buy into it. Born in the U.S.A. hit like a victory party, but it lasted because its real business was acknowledging the hangover. Putting America’s most treasured tales in the mouths of men who spoke in broken sentences, Springsteen deglamorized its mythos while retaining its allure. He wasn’t the first to do this — he owed a debt to the great blues singers, country greats like Merle Haggard and his beloved girl groups and soul stars. But as a white man with the force of rock supremacy behind him, Springsteen was able to embody something that was strong but vulnerable: the illusory American dream.

Bryan’s songs are evolving toward a similar powerful slipperiness, in a different way for a different time. He has frequently insisted that his music is not political, going so far to say on X recently that people who take sides in political discussions “don’t have anything interesting to do or say.” It’s telling that his duet with Springsteen doesn’t go anywhere near the working man, and certainly not near any war zones; instead, it returns to the moment when working-man’s bard Bruce became sex symbol Bruce with a few synth flourishes (also audible in Born in the U.S.A.’s “Dancing in the Dark”). “Sandpaper” casts the rock patriarch in a mysterious role; I’m reading it as an older version of Bryan, reflecting years later on the loss of a woman who left him raw and yet still rapt. (This song is an odd case of a Bryan metaphor being a little off — I’m really not handy, but does sandpaper actually “bind”?) It’s an unexpected casting on an album that, despite Bryan’s insistence, does resonate in ways that recall Born in the U.S.A.’s complicated impact.

Nineteen tracks long, with a signature spoken-word intro that allows Bryan to place the album within the arc of his career, The Great American Bar Scene has room for several different varieties of storytelling. There are plenty of love songs, the usual Bryan kind in which his inadequacies fail his partner’s expectations. There are thorny anthems like the John Mayer feature “Better Days.” And there are plenty of chances for Bryan to play into his lore with autobiographical references to his discomfort with fame and his pleasure in a thriving relationship with podcaster Brianna LaPaglia. Bryan’s also included a mini-arc that directly invokes classic Springsteen songs, especially from Nebraska, whose sound most closely resembles Bryan’s subdued, acoustic approach; on these songs, he clearly adapts others’ personae to tell stories of mild outlawry and fading masculine prowess. They’re exquisitely crafted, but I find them less interesting than the ones that display Bryan’s unique form of slipperiness: the way he manages to humbly and almost imperceptibly make a broken myth of himself.

This is something Springsteen has rarely done. Despite the rock star status that makes people care very much about his personal life, he’s always been a folkie fiction writer, casting himself within tales that very clearly don’t reflect events from his own life. This is what connects him to Bob Dylan, another giant who, even when he does skirt openly confessional songwriting, prefers to remain masked and anonymous. Springsteen’s rise, in fact, marked a major turn away from the openly confessional singer-songwriter era. That turn would extend into the 1990s and beyond, among male rockers at least; the heroes of grunge, for example, obscured their own stories within cryptic word salads. Bryan’s stardom follows a turn back toward the personal led by Americountry success stories like Isbell and Chris Stapleton. He wants to be recognized. What makes his music slippery — and both more interesting and, despite his protestations, political — are the bigger stories he doesn’t quite so clearly articulate.

Foremost among them is his experience as part of a military family. Born on a naval base in Japan, Bryan himself enlisted at 17 and served eight years before being honorably discharged to pursue his musical career. He did tours in Djibouti and Bahrain, apparently not seeing combat, but still entering into that experience as the American presence abroad is facing increasing global scrutiny. The sense of dislocation in his songs is tangled up with his memories of service and mixed feelings about leaving it behind in favor of music. “I was supposed to die a military man, chest out too far with a drink in my hand,” he sings in the new song “Northern Thunder,” one of his most succinct complaints about the difficult life of the touring musician. His discomfort with having left that path permeates the song, but elsewhere he notes its cost, citing a young soldier wrecked by his first tour in “American Nights” and evoking the instability of the military lifestyle in family sagas like “Bass Boat.”

Bryan believes in the men who served, whom he considers brothers, comparing them favorably to the swaggering pretenders he meets in the music world: “Now everyone I know’s an outlaw, country to their core,” he sings in “Bathwater.” “But the only outlaw I’ve known served in the Corps.” The haunting presence of these enlisted men lends gravitas to Bryan’s tales of bar and road life; their stories are the ones that ground and torment him, even if he’s hesitant to lay them open. Their mostly silent witness adds complicated depth to the restlessness at the heart of Bryan’s writerly persona: There is a feeling of unfinished business within his songs, of regret and anger at crises and sacrifices that go unacknowledged.

This thread intertwines with his references to a sometimes troubled childhood and the ever-present threat of alcoholism to form a picture of American working-class life (mostly white and rural, though not necessarily so) that fights against the sentimentalizing impulse that can also surface in Bryan’s writing. He hasn’t yet reckoned with the power structures that mire his characters in their limbos; that’s one difference from Springsteen, who always made sure to identify the people (police officers, fathers, drug lords) and institutions (marriage, industrial capitalism) that made exercising free will a dicey proposition for his anti-heroes and heroines. If Bryan gets there, he might write an album like Springsteen’s underrated classic The Ghost of Tom Joad, which showed how the folk impulse to fight for a people, and not just individuals, could work within rock and roll.

Where Bryan stands now still proves powerful. For all of its wordiness (he invokes his own notebook collection more than anyone since Eminem was Slim Shady), Bryan’s lyrics reach for what has not been spoken, not in the cathartic spirit of protest, but in a more personal vein. His music does the same. Even as he’s built out his songs to translate for a mass audience, Bryan continues to leave plenty of space within his sound, working with his band and occasional co-producers to retain the feel of a live performance or of demos instead of beefing up the mix. He sings very close to the mic, only pulling out the full power of his tenor for the odd chaotic moment. (A jarring one: the final harmony on “Memphis; The Blues,” his duet with Moreland, who is a master of restraint.)

No longer do most tracks feel like solo ventures recorded on a phone, but Bryan has resisted committing to a style or genre even as he’s grown his sound. There’s a Celtic feel to a few tracks here, a bit of honky-tonk, a fair amount of folkish indie in the vein of Bon Iver and Bright Eyes. Yet The Great American Bar Scene still sounds huge, just as Born in the U.S.A. once did, because it fully engages with the aesthetics of its pop moment. The 1980s demanded that Bruce go massive. The 2020s require that Zach stay in scale. Maintaining his distance from clear genre markers, stubbornly insisting on his own point of view, Bryan stands alongside innovators from many different corners of the poly-genre spectrum: early Billie Eilish, Alex G, Lil Yachty, Charli XCX.

Where that point of view gets political is in the silence, too. In a recent New York Review of Books essay, Marilynne Robinson asks readers dismayed by America’s current political disarray to look backward for a moment at one source of the trauma: “the gross maldistribution of the burdens and consequences of our wars.” Referring specifically to the 4,400 American lives lost in Iraq, which have not yet been honored by a national memorial, she connects the seemingly inarticulate grievances of many living Americans to this and other major losses rarely acknowledged in public discourse. “Our foreign entanglements have passed through permutations that make them truly baffling,” she writes.

Bryan, who’s written songs in the past reflecting his own confusion over exactly what he was fighting when overseas, makes music for the baffled: those who want to believe in things like family, love, America, but who have been shell-shocked and carted around in darkness and are now just trying to find a way back. He doesn’t have to name a party affiliation to make this clear. It’s right there in The Great American Bar Scene’s song “Boons,” an ode to country living that’s also a dirge about it — its isolation, the way it makes people anonymous. “Let me die out in the boons,” Bryan murmurs as he plucks a circular guitar chord and a chorus of Sufjan Stevens-esque angels lifts his voice a little higher. Forget me, he says. You won’t be able to forget me, the song insists.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Corrected: July 10, 2024 at 2:59 PM MDT
A previous version of this story misspelled Noeline Hofmann's last name.
Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.