Though he’s gone relatively unheralded within the country industry, Orange County native Gary Allan is hands-down one of the best male singers in Nashville, able to convey difficult emotions like disgust, regret, and frustration in a singly well-phrased line. Though it peaked at an indefensible #12, his “Songs About Rain” was one of 2004’s most compelling country singles, and the way Allan snarls, “Well, there’s all kinds of songs about babies and love that goes right/But for some unknown reason, nobody wants to play them tonight,” is the kind of expression that’s all too often lacking on country radio.
The emotions Allan confronts on his latest album, Tough All Over, are steeped in a nearly unfathomable complexity. Not long after “Songs About Rain” peaked at radio, Allan’s wife of three years committed suicide. Rather than release another single from his previous album, See If I Care, Allan chose to confront the situation head-on and reentered the studio to record more prescient material. And though it isn’t a start-to-finish confrontation with his devastation and grief, the album that emerged from those sessions is the most consistent and rewarding release of Allan’s career. Even when using a third-person narrator, as on the lead single, a cover of Vertical Horizon’s “Best I Ever Had” which he miraculously gives substance, Allan’s a strong enough singer to make deeply personal emotions palpable. Because he’s such a skilled interpretive singer, Allan rarely records his own songs, but the four tracks he co-wrote for Tough All Over (“I Just Got Back from Hell,” “Puttin’ Memories Away,” “No Damn Good,” and “Putting My Misery On Display”) form the gripping emotional core of the album and are arguably even better than the contributions from such A-list songwriters as Jim Lauderdale, Kostas, and Jamie O’Hara. The production by Mark Wright and Allan gives a rock-leaning edge to the album’s sound, which complements Allan’s vocal style well and which incorporates Allan’s Bakersfield background into his whiskey-drenched modern country.
Few major label country releases come with the kind of backstory that accompanies Tough All Over, and Allan’s previous material certainly never gave any reason to doubt his authenticity or to question his street cred. But Tough All Over is the sound of a phenomenal talent at his most emotionally raw. It isn’t always an easy listen (and, while there’s a conspicuous absence of traditional love songs, there are admittedly a few songs that simply lack the resonance of “I Just Got Back from Hell” or “No Damn Good”), but it is, in many ways, a primer on the kind of insight and emotional depth that the best country music can offer.