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Allan's 'Free' Is An Uneven Country Concept Album

For The Heights

Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 21:01

Gary Allan’s 10th studio album, Set You Free, digs its feet into the ground to hold together as a concept album at a time when the record industry would rather pull it apart single by iTunes single. A linear narrative documenting a breakup, Set You Free has released just in time to fuel the lonely consumption of self-gifted Valentine sweets. I’m going to try and ignore the image that Allan gives off of a recycled badboy—tattoos fading into a former glory like his tobacco-yellow sex appeal and instead, focus on the fact that the album is generally without direction. One is left with the impression that Allan knows a lot more about being left and how to heal his own wounds than about love itself.

It is instantly clear that the production on this album is of expert quality. “Bones” jumps in on a whiskey-fire riff, and so far everything makes sense. Allan may easily stare into a mirror as he sings “I’ve got a bone to pick with you.” He laments some more: “It ain’t the whiskey / it ain’t the cigarettes / it ain’t the stuff I smoke…it ain’t the whiskey that’s killing me” on “It Ain’t The Whiskey.” He clearly reaches for Hotel California grandiosity on “Sand In My Soul” and, though it doesn’t quite get there, it’s pleasant enough. But here, the careful listener will notice the subtle ingenuity that plagues Set You Free. It is hard to take Allan’s self-loathing seriously over an optimistic male choir cheerfully “oh”-ing their way to pop-country success.

After the blistering self-acknowledgment of the first half of the album, it’s strange that Allan begins to wish for “One More Time” with his ex-lover. Surely he must have realized at this point that he was living in an illusion (or is living in one now). After such candid, honest thoughts, surely he must understand that his girl had a life before him, continues to have one after, and that it isn’t crazy or sad, even, it’s just a fact of life. But Allan doesn’t go so deep before he jumps into “No Worries”—a track that sounds like a recording of Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er” adapted for a Sandals resort, then covered by your Hawaiian-shirted boss on your company’s annual “Bahama Mama” day-cruise.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of Allan’s psychology on love comes with the final three songs. “Drop” is actually the best track on the album; a lead guitar under the influence of reverb and an aggressive crunch here and there tastefully accent the standard jazz progression. But who exactly is Allan seducing here? Is this a wet dream about his ex-lover? Is this another woman? The following song, “Pieces,” shows him looking back on the relationship with a haughty sense of triumph. Does this suggest that Allan was able to forget the love of his life after a random sexual encounter? Set You Free finishes with the victory lap that is “Good As New,” and its unsettling how Allan portrays love as a battle which one must champion.

The album jumps from anger to self-loathing to regret to triumph, but there is no crushing, deep understanding of self that allows for an acceptance of heartbreak. It is true that the process of recovery is anything but logical—clarity is always subjective, truth is always tainted with uncertainty. Hope distorts. But there is not enough here to suggest that Allan has actively produced a disjointed album to simulate healing. He also doesn’t bother to delve into why the relationship broke apart, and in fact, the only flaw he mentions about himself is his alcoholism (which, by the way, he seems to be okay with). The point of catharsis happens behind the scenes, and in an album that is so obviously personal, Allan seems unwilling to share the details—or he simply hasn’t thought them through.

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