Well, if Zac Brown Band were looking for controversy, they found it.
The decision to release ‘Beautiful Drug’ to country radio was likely a label one, knowing the polarization it would cause, but regardless the group have come under much fire for recording a song described as ‘pop-EDM’, when they are known for their repertoire of roots, country and rock. I personally am generally against the use of electronic elements in country and the ever-popification of the format (with a few notable exceptions that include the adorable Kelsea Ballerini – don’t judge me), but I think I have had a less aggressive reaction to the existence and release of this song than many others.
For starters, I was never a huge Zac Brown Band fan; admittedly my appreciation of them has increased in recent months after going back through their back catalog more carefully and with changed tastes since I first heard them, but I do not consider them one of my favorite acts, so I had minimal expectations when approaching the new record. Secondly, ‘Jekyll + Hyde’, an album which our writer Nick fell in love with, is incredibly sonically varied and drifts between country, rock, pop, EDM, jazz, Motown, reggae and blues. In the context of the whole record, ‘Beautiful Drug’ doesn’t sound all too off-kilter, although it must be said that it can be a culture shock as it occupies the opening slot. Once that initial listen has subsided, however, and the rest of the album has been absorbed, ‘Beautiful Drug’ becomes a part of the overall madness of an appropriately-titled collection.
Still, I can see why it’s upsetting the listener base. For those of their fans who prefer the roots of their music, I can imagine hearing them tackle EDM was awful, while for the more casual fans who haven’t heard the record, I can imagine they were horrified at such a dramatic departure from ‘Homegrown’. Even ‘Loving You Easy’, a song which has just gone #1 on country radio, opts for a 60s Motown sound that by its very make-up favors the old school over the modern. And for a band who always channelled a lot of soul into their music, Motown isn’t a huge jump. EDM, however, is.
It also comes off rather contrived from a man who once said that Luke Bryan’s ‘That’s My Kind of Night’ was the “worst song of all time”, going on to criticize Luke’s selling out to the mainstream. While it’s true that they may have just been experimenting, and it’s not exactly David Guetta level of commercial, the fact that they’re releasing it as a single – and to country radio no less – is where things get messy and awkward. It’s hard to know what they hoped to gain from this.
The song itself begins with what sounds like an electric banjo fast-picking a drone pattern, while reverb rises over Zac’s incoming minor key vocals and the chorus leaps in at just 0:30. In actual fact the “real” instrumentation continues underneath the first chorus, although it’s clear auto-tune has been used on the vocals by this point and various other electronic techniques come to follow. The pumping drum beat introduces on the second verse and by the second chorus it’s pretty obvious which genre they’re aligning this song with. The synths are there, the build is rising into a crescendo, and it sounds perfect for a club.
Lyrically it actually doesn’t sound too dissimilar to some of their other songs, describing in often poetic form how a woman is like a beautiful drug to him. However, placed within the heavy electronic production and with an appropriate melody line, the loyalty of the lyrics are quickly forgotten and instead distracted by everything else that’s going on.
It’s difficult to know whether this will be a big hit with country fans. It could divide listeners and PDs and leave it trailing somewhere in the top 50, or it could burst out of the gate with that “fresh sound” and head straight to the top spot. I’m honestly not quite sure what to make of it, personally.
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