The title of country star Gary Allan's latest album, Get Off on the Pain, lays bare something that has been obvious about the singer for years now. He may not sing about adventures with single-tails, Kubotans, and violet wands, but Allan has built his reputation on delivering emotionally painful, difficult material with a knowing sense of masochism. After all, this is a man who used his 2005 album Tough All Over to chronicle the fallout from his wife's suicide. If the context surrounding Pain never approaches the devastating lows of those circumstances, the material explores a broader range of complex and wrenching emotions, and it marks the most consistent set of songs Allan has yet recorded.
The set opens with the title track, which serves as an effective thesis: Singing about his predilections for dark horses, lost causes, and women who do (him) wrong, Allan never even hints at a desire to change his behavior. In fact, he often seems to revel in it, making himself miserable by watching a former love's wedding on "Today" and insisting that he will "enjoy the ride all the way down" as he tries to drink away a messy breakup on "That Ain't Gonna Fly." His ability to deliver these types of conflicting states of mind over the course of a single performance is something that has long distinguished Allan from his contemporaries.
A singer of real grit and depth, Allan is in typically superlative voice throughout Pain, reaching for some effective low notes on "Fly" and turning the standout cuts "Kiss Me When I'm Down" and "Along the Way" into masterpieces of contemporary country soul. "Down" is simply a tremendous song and performance: It ups the stakes on the drunk-dial desperation of Lady Antebellum's already terrific "Need You Now," and there's a subtle break in Allan's voice as he begs, "Just don't wake me when you leave," that's the kind of thing that just can't be faked. It's so effective that it nearly makes the on-the-verge narrative of "We Fly by Night" and cautionary tale of "When You Give Yourself Away" sound like reprieves in comparison.
Allan doesn't cut himself any slack though. The closest he comes is on "She Gets Me," which gives the initial impression of a standard love song but emerges as a song about how Allan's choices impact those closest to him. From start to finish, Pain makes most of today's country music sound vapid and easy. If there's a real knock against the album, it's that Allan and co-producers Mark Wright and Greg Droman have made it all a good deal louder than it needs to be, which blunts the impact of some attempts at dynamic range and some of the more subtle production flourishes. Still, even its loudness works as an aesthetic choice: It somehow seems appropriate that it physically hurts to listen to Pain.