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