Figures. Just as I was thinking I might forgive Zac Brown Band for making my least favorite track on The Foundation their first single, they go and release what might be my second-least favorite as the follow-up. Well, shoot.
OK, here’s the good news: the single does sound completely genuine in a way that most radio odes to That Special Woman just don’t. For one thing, there is a clear attempt here to detail specifics, some of which are actually pretty cool (“her pretty legs go to heaven every time” is either suggestive or just abstract, and either way it works). Brown’s understated delivery also helps keep things down-to-earth, which makes for a welcome reprieve from the “pump you UP!” mantra of so many of his peers. And the record is blessed by the distinct sound that the group have crafted for themselves; you’d certainly be hard-pressed to find a nicer set of violin fills on a country single released in the last year.
But “Whatever It Is” is also burdened by an inert, casual cuteness which ultimately renders it too nice to be completely memorable. I’m not saying there’s something wrong with positivity, and I can relate to the emotional rationale behind a deceptively simple line like, “every time I try to tell her how I feel, it comes out ‘I love you.’”
But without any palpable urgency to the expression of affection, nor a sense of past heartbreak being overcome (two attributes that much of Keith Urban’s similarly positive work, for example, has mastered), you’re just left saying, “well, that’s nice.” And then you move on. It’s the thing that separates decent songs like “Whatever It Is” from great songs like “Free” and “Highway 20 Ride” – you have to give your listener some reason to return to the story again and again, something that hooks them in a deep place even if your song happens to sound lighthearted and fun on the surface. “Whatever It Is” sounds like genuine affection to me, but the expression is too low-key to be particularly engaging and too one-dimensionally positive to offer a sense of meaningful reward. It just sits there being nice.
And that might make for another hit, but it won’t leave a very deep dent. I’ve grown to really like Zac Brown Band and think they deserve to see their current success continue, but here’s hoping that this and “Chicken Fried” are just the warm-up routine and that their best radio releases are still yet to come.
Written by Zac Brown & Wyatt Durette
Listen: Whatever It Is