PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Gary Allan: Living Hard

Mark Desrosiers

Welcome to 2007. When personal growth and honky tonk clash, it's personal growth that wins.

Gary Allan

Living Hard

Label: MCA Nashville
US Release Date: 2007-10-23
UK Release Date: 2007-10-22

Give Gary Allan 20 more years and he'll be a menace, a grizzled, soulful fogey with six-odd decades of hard living and shots of Jag behind him. Maybe by that time people will stop asking him about his wife's 2004 suicide too. For now, though, his voice is merely amazing, one of the few solid comforts among the current crop of Gen-X Nashville hit makers. At turns soaring, gravelly, and trembling, Allan's intuitive singing conjures up stoic Hag barstooling with nervous Gary Stewart. Hand Allan a bad song, and he'll still try to make something out of it. This is more than apparent on the latest album, Living Hard, in which he actually hands himself some bad songs that he wrote himself, and makes something of 'em.

Unfortunately, he is also clearly aiming for country pop superstardom, which means the honky tonk has now disappeared completely from his work. Living Hard is an example of an age-old contradiction in music. What feels like a step in the right direction for the artist's personal growth isn't exactly a step in the right direction for us, the audience. I don't think Allan will lose us here. There are some great tracks as usual, and at least four are destined to be hits. But many people might have some trouble getting a grip on the sensitive mature widower who still feels obliged to warn us against boning California girls.

The honky tonks do not allow for consideration of spiritual growth, but they do allow for bragging rights and barstool-mountain confusion, both of which Allan regrettably sidesteps throughout this record. He clearly has a new lover, who is healing and reshaping him in the light of his wife Angela's suicide in 2004 (looks like I still have to mention it). I don't think this lover is the subject of "She's So California" ("she's a wildfire outta control heading for ya", say, isn't Bakersfield also in California, Gary?), but she's definitely the inspiration behind "Learning How to Bend", also written by Allan and also a little icky. In addition to learning how to bend, he learns "how to trust", and "how to pray". Make him stop boys before he learns how to cuddle and cross-stitch!

But seriously, it's nice to see masculinity tempered and readjusted in songs like this, but this being country and western music (I think), a return to the good old days of small, frank stories, as opposed to massive symbols and metaphors, would be nice. I think I need only mention the titles of "We Touched the Sun" and "Yesterday's Rain", both tributes to Angela, to demonstrate what I mean. Despite the group-therapy mushiness of those tracks, Allan's agile rubbery-gritty vocal chords can give you something to hold on to (even if they are drenched in strings and reverb). Facts are facts. The man is a beautiful singer.

He's also a man who likes to share his gift for rocking out when the mood fits him (which is at least twice per album). The endlessly playable "Like It's a Bad Thing" puts him squarely in Drive By Truckers (or at least Jason Isbell) territory, with that chunky guitar and a melodic stoic-loner chorus that totally contradicts the rest of the record in its offhanded selfishness. "So what if I don't do it like everyone else does," he spits, and you wish he'd make it a permanent habit to walk his own path. Great stuff. "Wrecking Ball" features even more offhand riffing and the strident chorus "I'm a wreck y'all and she's a wrecking ball." I bet this one sounds especially great driving home from your secret sack mate’s apartment at 7am. Then there's the title track, which tumbles down the highway in a loose-limbed anti-groove (complete with that "wooh wooh" hook from "Sympathy for the Devil"), and which is mostly worth your time because of the finest Allan-penned lyrics hereabouts. He's "playin' junkyard guitar, gettin' paid." He's "gotta check the set list to find out what state I'm in". He "roll[s] like the Stones, startin' to look like Dylan" (I think he means Jakob). It is about touring, life on the road, but hey I'll take any witty realistic details I can get from this frequent conjurer of empty symbols.

The album's standout, from both a pop wise and a plane-spotting standpoint, is "Watching Airplanes", the first single. Yes, the song is about being some sort of a ridiculous wuss. Watching airplanes take off, "trying to figure out which one you might be on / And why you don't love me anymore". But let's forget about that and consider how he lets his singing melt between that sneaky hook, then soar among the massed strings. The small cracks in his soul and voice box get opened wide here, and he puts it across without trouble or embarrassment, with his eye on the sky, as they say. Just a great pop single, one of the year's best.

Living Hard is a flawed record. It doesn't live up to its title, for one thing, and it sometimes veers into very schlocky territory. But the great tracks, "Watching Airplanes" and "Like It's a Bad Thing" especially, suggest a singer very much on top of his game. Like Jason Isbell, his cohort on the other side of the indie fence, Allan demonstrates again that being mostly soft while being partially hard is a tough trick to pull off. With a bit more humor, a lot more honky tonk, and some trickier songs about the outside world, Gary Allan could put together the first brilliant country record of the century, if he has the balls to give it a go next time.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.