Considering the circumstances that led to the recording of 2005’s Tough All Over (an album that has only improved with age), it’s probably for the best that Gary Allan’s follow-up, Living Hard, lacks the complex emotional freight of its predecessor. Whereas Tough All Over was, understandably, steeped in the stages of grief, Living Hard finds Allan taking stock of his life and attempting to regain senses of direction and control. From a stylistic perspective, this means that Allan, co-producing with Mark Wright, leans heavily on both his Bakersfield and hard-rock influences. The result is a record that is still slick contemporary country but with frayed edges that reflect Allan’s hard-earned perspective. Just as significantly, Allan has also taken on an even greater role as a songwriter here than on any of his previous efforts, and, working with many of contemporary country’s go-to writers like Jim Lauderdale, Jon Randall, and Jaime Hanna, Allan’s contributions are among the album’s strongest songs. There are a couple of missteps—the title track is a clichéd life-on-the-road song, the flat-out dumb rave-up “Wrecking Ball” (its hook is, “I’m a wreck, y’all/She’s a wrecking ball”) sounds like something Jason Aldean or Montgomery Gentry would record, and the references to out-of-control wildfires on “She’s So California” are catastrophically ill-timed—but Living Hard is a consistently solid set. The songs give Allan, still the best male vocalist in modern country, ample opportunity to challenge himself: On “Learning How to Bend,” for instance, he pulls off an effective falsetto. If the album never quite reaches the high points of Tough All Over, Allan’s performances nonetheless elevate the material, making Living Hard another strong effort from one of country’s greatest and under-appreciated talents.
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