Gary Allan ‘Set You Free' (MCA Nashville)
Among mainstream country music stars, Gary Allan has always been a bit of a maverick, and his trend-bucking ways prove more tuneful and welcome than ever on “Set You Free,” which just debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Country Albums Chart and the cross-genre Billboard 200 Chart.
The California native's musical maturity is even more appreciated than usual amid the glut of Southern rock party anthems permeating the country airwaves these days.
The follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2010 effort “Get Off on the Pain” is a sort of emotional concept album, with the singer-songwriter exploring various musical styles as he follows the narrative arc of a man coping with a broken love affair.
The stages of grief are represented on “Set You Free,” although not necessarily in order. There's a kind of dodged-a-bullet vibe to the rollicking opener “Tough Goodbye,” in which he drawls that it tore him up watching the girl try not to cry but quickly adds “I'm not done being free.” Already a No. 1 hit on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, the darkly pretty single “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” sets a hopeful tone and showcases Allan's raw vocal style.
He moves on to anger with the gritty country-blues boot-stomper “Bones,” and by the middle of the album, it's clear the pain has set in. The organ opening of “It Ain't the Whiskey” contrasts with the stark lyrics, as his protagonist interrupts an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to declare “It's all these things I can't forget ... It's ain't the whiskey that's killing me.”
Allan puts a bleakly surreal spin on the island country trend with the wallowing “Sand in My Soul,” and he harmonizes beautifully with co-writer Rachel Proctor on the heartbreaker “You Without Me,” about seeing his one-time lover with a new man. The old-school country of “Hungover Heart” contrasts intriguingly with the reggae groove of “No Worries,” which effectively sets up the album's big finish.
Acceptance is the theme of the uptempo anthem “Pieces,” as his character acknowledges the mistakes made and lessons learned along the way. Finally, the lust of the sultry jazz-inflected come-on “Drop” proves to be true love that makes him “Good as New” on the fervent ballad that closes the album, the all-around strongest to date of Allan's career.
— Brandy McDonnell