Singer/songwriter Gary Allan can’t escape the dark corners of his past, nor has he ever tried to run from the haunting tragedy of his wife Angela’s 2004 suicide. While somber tones filled even his earliest hits like 1999’s “Smoke Rings In the Dark,” Gary’s sound grew darker in the latter half of the 2000s as he tried to work through the still very raw emotions surrounding her death. Most recently, Gary’s stinging 2010 album, Get Off On The Pain, focused on loss with a sense that he was still trying to think of reasons to get out of bed in the morning.
Armed with a new 12-song collection, Gary is now looking to lighten the mood with his ninth studio album. Set You Free, due in stores January 22, claims a few significant firsts for the 45-year-old California native as he works to emerge from the emotional intensity of his recent projects. First off, Gary co-produced seven of the album’s songs, working with producers Mark Wright (Brooks & Dunn, Lee Ann Womack) and Greg Droman (Get Off On The Pain, Jace Everett) for a more hands-on approach to the creative process. In-demand producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town) takes over the five remaining cuts while Gary plays guitar on the album for the first time in his career and is the co-wroter of five of its songs. Like he sings on the record’s lead single, “Every Storm (Runs Out Of Rain),” his first Top 5 hit since 2007, We all have thorns, and in this case, accepting them seems to be therapeutic.
Set You Free opens with the gritty distortion we’ve come to expect from Gary. Through his smoky rasp on “Tough Goodbye,” he sings, I won’t find anyone better/I can’t keep running forever. The words aren’t expressly about his wife, but given the context, it’s hard to ignore the connection. His haunted voice remains one of music’s most complex, seemingly able to convey vulnerabilities wrapped in bruised experience. Gary sounds the best he has in years on Set You Free, as if acceptance has offered new confidence as well. On the pounding, sledge hammer Honky Tonk of “Bones” or the old school–inspired, “Drop,” which has a feel reminiscent of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s classic “16 Tons,” Gary’s maneuvering between aggressive and reserved is exciting and fresh as he rises and falls with the song’s pulse.
Optimism and new beginnings run through the project, most notably on the album closer, “Good As New.” Introspective guitars lead into a dramatic, string-filled chorus that practically shouts out, “There’s hope after all!” following a series of broken images. You put the spark back into my eyes, Gary sings on the song. But here, and on the reggae-influenced, “No Worries,” Gary’s melancholy, heart-on-the-sleeve delivery betrays the song’s sunny attempts. The flipside of “No Worries” is “Sand In My Soul,” a powerful and alienated tale that stands in stark contrast to today’s breezy beach party songs.
Set You Free keeps its heaviest songs up front before growing lighter. On the back half of the record, tunes like the excellent driving song, “Pieces,” understands and accepts that who we are and what we offer is based on our own experience. It’s a stance that feels more at ease, but songs like the tormented, “Whiskey,” and the soulful, “Hungover Heart,” let the world know that the pain is still there. However, on Set You Free, Gary’s acceptance offers a chance to start over with a compelling new piece of the journey.
Key Tracks – “Sand In My Soul,” “Every Storm (Runs Out Of Rain),” “Drop,” “Whiskey”