So how, in 2006, do you review a record that’s already been recognized as one of the top five country albums of 2005, right here on this very web site?
In detail, that’s how.
So, with a nod to Julie Andrews, let’s start at the beginning. Apparently, it’s a very good place to start. The principal back story to Tough All Over is that Gary Allan’s wife, Angela Herzberg, shot herself in October 2004. She’d suffered for years from depression, and also from severe migraine headaches. The couple had been married for three years and had six children between them from their previous marriages. Tough All Over is Allan’s first release since her suicide, and it’s fair to assume that the recording process was dominated by the tragedy and its effects on Allan and his family.
But there is always more than one back story. Tough All Over is Allan’s sixth album, and his work has been growing in scope and strength with almost every release. Alright Guy, released in 2001, may have been the exception that proves the rule, but it did provide the big hit single, “Man to Man”, a song that must take on fresh poignancy for Allan today: “Man to man, tell me the truth, tell me were you ever there when she needed you?”
So, we have a performer who was, by most assessments, already on the verge of bringing it all together into a landmark, career-defining release. We have a tragedy that caused the performer to pass through the fire. And we have the Friedrich Nietzsche effect.
The title track is barely country at all. “Tough All Over” is a bar room rhythm ‘n’ booze groove that’s appropriately adorned with harmonica and an apparently simulated Hammond organ long before a little light fiddle eases into the mix to reclaim Gary Allan for Nashville. It’s an interesting choice of song for Allan. The literal meaning is clear: the singer’s girl has gone, he misses her, but he won’t take her back if all she wants is a prop to support her in these tough times. But in Allan’s hands, “Tough All Over” says much more than that. Obviously, the title implies that he, himself, is Tough All Over; that he’s passed through his fires and come out stronger. And then again, many of the lyrics reflect both the singer’s sorrow at the loss of his wife and his resolve for the future: “Things are tough all over, and I’m losing badly. I wish you were still here… Guess I should count my blessings for the life I still have.”
Since Gary Allan only took a hand in writing four of the 12 songs on Tough All Over, his choice of other people’s material was critical to the success of this record. Many of the songs here come from previous contributors and collaborators, such as Jamie O’Neal and Harley Allen, but Allan’s decision to cover Vertical Horizon’s “Best I Ever Had” was especially brave and successful. Again, sections of these lyrics speak volumes. But again, that’s not all there is here. Gary Allan plays “Best I Ever Had” straight down the line, he does nothing revolutionary to his material, but like Johnny Cash singing Nine Inch Nails or Ewan McColl, he makes the song his own by the simply clarity, honesty and dignity of his performance. The man can just plain sing.
“I Just Got Back From Hell” is the first Gary Allan original on Tough All Over. It was written in collaboration with Harley Allen, and it’s safe to say that it’s a deeply personal expression of sorrow, self-doubt and resolution. Although the arrangement and production have a vaguely military and heroic feel that actually detracts from the power of Allan’s performance by constructing an unnecessary barrier between the singer and his audience, “I Just Got Back From Hell” is still a very fine song indeed. A clear testament to the emotional power of country music, it’s an equally clear affirmation from Allan that he believes he has indeed come through his fires intact.
“Ring” is a nicely trite piece of country fluff transcended both by context and Allan’s performance. Just as it’s hard to believe that a performer in any other genre could have achieved the openness and honesty of “I Just Got Back From Hell”, so it’s hard to imagine any rapper or rocker singing to the ring his wife left behind. Again, the literal meaning of the song is that the singer’s woman has left him for the arms of another but, of course, the lyrics takes on deeper significance given the back story.
Thankfully, “Promise Broken” is something of a half-step back from the prevailing theme. That’s not to say it’s a happy-go-lucky rocker with a cheeky grin and a pun in every port, just that its story of broken promises and broken hearts is probably not directly relevant to Angela Herzberg’s suicide. Although… what about the suggestion that a broken promise tells “the people you love that they don’t matter quite enough”?
No two ways about it, once you’ve been dragged into what you perceive to be Allan’s world, it’s hard to escape its gravity. Even with a song as straightforward as “Nickajack Cave (Johnny Cash’s Redemption)”, it’s easy to see parallels between Cash’s experiences in 1967 and, again, what you perceive to be Allan’s own redemption today. This is a thought that’s supported by the stand-out track on Tough All Over, “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful”. A slow and heartfelt statement of heartbreak and deliverance, this song directly echoes Nietzsche: “The struggles make you stronger, and the changes make you wise.”
The elongated soulful strings of “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful” are followed by the swamp grind of “He Can’t Quit Her”, as a series of Lynyrd Skynyrd references and power-chords combine to tell the story of one man’s obsessive relationship with a prostitute. This is the first song here that can’t be comfortably interpreted to fit the overall concept of Tough All Over, and yet the emotions it explores aren’t a million miles away from the record’s persistent themes of love and loss. Next up, “What Kind of Fool” is the weakest song on Tough All Over. The only weak song. A blend of ‘80s pop devices and Orbison-style country, it fits Gary Allan like a child’s glove and sends your fingers scurrying off in search of the skip button.
Fortunately, the next track on Tough All Over is “Puttin’ Memories Away”, the first and strongest of a powerful three song closing sequence—all of which Allan either wrote or co-wrote.
Yesterday I found your dress
I guess there’s some things I missed in our room
But it didn’t break me down
The second that I found it like it used to
With red wine and tears,
I’ve been gathering all the years we spent together
I need to move on
‘Cause I know that you’re gone forever
—“Puttin’ Memories Away”
Listening to Tough All Over often feels uncomfortably like voyeurism—or its aural equivalent, and it never feels more like a cheap holiday in other people’s misery than during “Puttin’ Memories Away”. A simple, fiddle-led tearjerker, this song can only be an honest expression of Allan’s extended grieving process. The hurt and the break in his voice are both too obvious and genuine for it to be otherwise.
The penultimate song, “No Damn Good”, is yet another with a subtext beyond the literal. A mid-paced roadhouse rocker, it tells the tale of a man who regrets suggesting a trial separation because he’s “no damn good at not loving you”. The only quibble I have with this song is that it could have been sequenced elsewhere in the flow to better effect. Dropping the thoroughly unnecessary “What Kind of Fool” and replacing it with “No Damn Good”, would have made the final minutes of Tough All Over stronger and more complete. Because the final cut, the country power ballad, “Putting My Misery on Display”, is Allan’s own response to the unease caused by “Puttin’ Memories Away”: “I don’t do this for fame, I do this for me. It sooths my soul and saves my sanity”.
So there you have it. A great country record recorded by a performer who was due. But is that the end of the story? I don’t think so, because Tough All Over leaves me with an uneasy feeling about myself. We can assume that Gary Allan could not have made Tough All Over in happier times, but how can we know? Great musicians have captured intense emotions before without actually living them. What I do know is, that for me as a listener, I cannot divide this thing from its context. I am more open to Allan’s music precisely because I assume it to be authentic as hell and rooted in a deep, personal tragedy.
Should it matter that this record is informed, influenced and, in one meaning of the word, inspired by the suicide of Angela Herzberg? No, it shouldn’t. But it does. If Gary Allan was happily married and living the self-satisfied, unchallenged life of the average millionaire rock star, Tough All Over would still be a damn fine record, but it wouldn’t strike the chords it does today.
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