Gary Allan returns to kick 2013 off in spectacular fashion.
We've been raving about Gary Allan on this website quite a lot over the last 12 years. Why? Because he's the best singer in country music, at least among the guys, and because he has been publicly working through the tragic death of his wife a few years ago, and because he has a sharp edge to him that a lot of other acts just don't have. (I hate to sound all trad like that; there are Taylor and Carrie and Tim and Shania and Brad albums all over my house. I'm just saying.) So there was very little chance that Set You Free, Allan's first record in three years, wouldn't get a good review around here. This became especially true after the first single, "Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)," started kicking ass all up and down the radio dial. You can always rely on the good old pathetic fallacy for a great country tune!
This song, released last fall, has proven so successful that the album release was pushed up a few months. It's a killer track, a slow growly power ballad focused on healin' instead of hurtin', hope instead of harm. It doesn't hurt that Allan co-wrote the song with Matt Warren and Hilary Lindsay, with the latter providing haunting harmony vocals on the chorus. Although this is a very strong first single, it is hardly the end of this album's power and reach. You want a hell of a weeper? Try "Hungover Heart", a song steeped hard in regret and alcohol. Want another one? Welcome to "It Ain't the Whiskey", with its eerie organ lines and its Saturday night/Sunday morning dichotomy. You want uplifting arena pop-rock? "Pieces" is your new jam, with its intriguingly philosophical chorus: "Pieces of my heart / Pieces of my soul / Pieces that I'm gonna be / I don't even know / I gave a lot to lovers / Gave a lot to friends / Everything I took from them / Made me who I am". It's a little more Zen than one expects, especially in these sledgehammer days.
There are a couple of missteps here: Gary Allan should not really be doing happy-vacation-type songs like "Sand in My Soul" and "No Worries". I'm glad that Allan is happier these days, and can actually smile every once in a while, but I wish he'd leave that stuff to Kenny Chesney. Because what really stands out here are the oddball numbers, the ones where Gary Allan allows himself to stretch just a bit. "Drop" is a sexy, bluesy, jazzy number where he shows off just how hard he can swing it ... and the importance of having fuzzed-out psychedelic guitar on a country song. "Bones," as one might imagine, bids fair to be the creepiest song of the year. It's a full-on rock number, closer to early Aerosmith than Kid Rock, with a hell of a lot of menace in it; Gary Allan sounds a lot more ominous talking about Satan and digging graves than 90 percent of your run-of-the-mill death metal acts, and he does so without cookie-monster-ing his vocals into submission.
And then there's the matter of the opening track, "Tough Goodbye," a song in which the narrator has just broken up with his girlfriend. He's got a few regrets about it, maybe, but he wants to be free so he's moving on with his life. It's the country version of "Hey Ya", perhaps. Very few musical artists of any type are willing to cast themselves in the role of the heel in a song – but Gary Allan is not your typical musical artist. It's great to have him back. This album is the truth.