Album Review: Gary Allan – Set You Free

Set You Free album coverIt used to be that Gary Allan’s voice wasn’t, far and away, the most distinctive thing about him. No, back when he would regularly slip a healthy number of stunner cuts by left-of-center writers like Shawn Camp, Harley Allen, Jamie O’Hara, Kevin Welch, Jim Lauderdale, Todd Snider, Bruce Robison, Trent Summar, and Jesse Winchester onto perfectly commercial country albums, that visionary song sense was something that set him apart as well. He didn’t just sing different: he was different, right down his willingness to wander afield for great songs others weren’t cutting.

There are flashes of that old Gary Allan here, with “It Ain’t the Whiskey,” “Hungover Heart,” and “Drop” being distinctly impressive. But there are also too many others that fill necessary slots in the album’s evocative brokenness-to-restoration arc (from “Tough Goodbye” to “Good As New,” titles telling the story) without standing out as anything very notable in themselves. Roughly half of these songs could as easily have appeared on a good album by Tim McGraw or Kenny Chesney – no coincidence, given writing credits by oft-recorded Row regulars like Hillary Lindsey, Tony Martin, Blair Daly, and the Warren Brothers. That Gary Allan makes more of these songs than McGraw or Chesney would have is small consolation: We already know he’s capable of working on another plane entirely.

Set You Free will almost certainly go down as one of the best mainstream country albums of the year. It’s just that, in the case of Gary Allan, that’s setting a pretty low bar.

Preview or purchase Set You Free on Amazon


  1. says

    I beg to differ.

    Although as your review suggests, “half of these songs could have easily appeared on a good album by McGraw or Chesney”, it’s Allan’s “distinctiveness” as you put it, that give common songs/lyric the artist’s touch.

    Country music lyric is for the most part thematic. But what an artist does to add conviction to common theme is what sets him above the rest. I think both Gary Allan and “Set You Free” have put themselves above mainstream and emerge from the ethers of the plane Gary Allan is capable of creating from and Gary Allan fans are accustomed to.

  2. Mary Katherine says

    Wow, C.M., what album did you listen to? Because the Gary Allan Set You Free album I listened to is brimming full of distinctive songs that are beyond what McGraw or Chesney in their best heydays could dream of, and I think Gary really stretched himself in new ways with amazing results. You know I’m one of his biggest fans but honestly, I must challenge you to listen a few more times and see if you think his work is quite as subpar as your review suggests.

    • Mary Katherine says

      The more I thought about your review overnight, the more I think your prejudice against the popular songwriters on Music Row colored your judgement of this album. I think it’s a hallmark of Gary’s giftedness that he can take songs by songwriters who are known for writing radio-friendly fare and make them into his own distinctive songs such that you have to check the credits to learn who the writers are instead of two seconds into the song knowing immediately “eh, that songwriter again? Don’t they know how to write something different?”. To judge his album as weak because he went with a Warren Brothers song instead of an obscure songwriter is a disservice to Gary’s gift. You kind of sort of acknowledge this in a round-about way in the end, but it sounds more like a veiled insult than a compliment.

      Although I will concede/concur with you (although you haven’t said it yet), I am relieved and glad to NOT see a Peach Picker song on here! I’m not sure if even Gary could make their triffles rise above!

  3. Kim says

    what really sets this album apart is that it’s ALREADY…very successful. It’s uncharacteristic for Gary Allan to push for such a spotlight as Set You Free has earned him. He’s been very happy standing in the back of the pack with the dark he likes to put it in his song Get off on the Pain. I’m happy that the CD is getting such..attention. it just means higher ticket prices and more sold out shows. As a fan, i’m conflicted too. :) Happy for Gary, sad for my wallet. lol

    • Mary Katherine says

      I hear you there, Kim. I’m happy to see Gary get more of the attention he has deserved all along, but not happy about fighting with the fair-weather new fans to get my spot by the stage with the Junkies like me who have been appreciative for years. I already encountered this challenge last week in Kansas City with his first album release show. And higher ticket prices are not something I look forward to either.

  4. says

    I really can’t give a review yet as I’ve not heard it all. But I can say this…Gary Allan doesn’t even have a bar!
    He could give two sh*ts if u like it or not, that’s his style. He has made a MAJOR change, always used the same producer before and his friend Harley passed away….I think it’s good to change it up a bit myself. I liked BONES right off and he didn’t right that one, I don’t care, I still like it!
    Enjoy the music, it’s suppose to make you feel something, just not…bitchin bout it~
    Love everyone, every single day~

    Cheryl Ann

  5. Missy says

    Kim could have not put it better! Tickets have already gone up in price,and it will keep ones like me from going to more than one or two shows…but I will make at least that! Im a big fan and I hope nothing but the best that life has to offer for him, he has worked hard and deserves all the praise he gets! I do hope that he doesn’t get so big that he forgets the ones that have loved his music from day one! And like said above…Happy for gary but sad for my wallet!!!

  6. SparkysMom says

    In your own words: “That Gary Allan makes more of these songs than McGraw or Chesney would have is small consolation.” By whose standards? Gary’s fans are truly some of the most loyal in any genre of music. They have long known what critics, music industry insiders, and cookie cutter listeners have ignored. Gary Allan uses his genius to make a song echo in the listener’s soul. It doesn’t matter who the writer may be. To see a truly talented ARTIST finally get some recognition for his gifts makes his fans feel justified in their support, jubilant in their rejoicings, and smug in the knowledge that we knew all along he was better than McGraw & Chesney. (Which by the way are two celebrities who pander the mainstream arena to make fortunes instead of creating music, so those comparisons are like the old apples/oranges cliche’.) So, is it a small consolation? To Gary Allan, his band, his crew, his management, his record company–and most importantly–his fans: The success is a well deserved, tasty treat that feels like a grand prize winner.

  7. Cindy Brackett says

    I am one of Gary’s biggest fans and have to agree with the review. While I love “It Ain’t the Whiskey” and “You without Me” which are “traditional Gary” music and “Bones” which is “rockin’ Gary music”, I was disappointed by several of the songs on this CD. I am also very happy that he seems to be in a better place mentally, but one of his strongest traits is pouring his heart and soul into his songs and that is what I missed most on this album.

    I say this with mixed emotions, because for years I could not understand why Gary didn’t get the recognition he obviously deserves as a singer/songwriter….now that he is getting that recognition/attention, I can see his new people pushing him toward more radio friendly music and I love my Gary Allan just the way he is. I can only hope that he stays true to himself and what he has always said “he will do it his way, and will not change just for the sake of popularity/recognition”.

  8. Mike Hyland says

    I have not read most of the comments ahead of me, but knowing that there is a huge push by the record company already in play to break this record and artist wide open, you are going to see Gary on tv shows, syndicated radio shows and you can probably expect to see a couple of “hit” singles as well. I agree with the review, his early albums were much more quirky and he cut songs that not everybody thought would get cut. I’ve been away from Nashville for almost four years now and I gotta say, not much has changed.

  9. Mike Wimmer says

    After listening to the album, I think it’s better than his last two efforts, but not as good as Tough All Over or the albums before that.

    I think this is the cold reality of Mainstream Country artists in the current radio era. Artists like Allan and his like still seem to be able to sneak some really awesome songs onto the albums, but are seemingly forced to record 4-5 songs that can wiggle onto Country radio if given the chance. It leads to a lot of inconsistency in terms of quality.

  10. Andrew says

    I’ll have to disagree with you on this, though not as vehemently as some of the other commenters. I don’t think this is as good an album as Tough All Over or Living Hard, but on balance I do think it’s very good. “It Ain’t The Whiskey” is a killer song and I really dig “Bones”. The rest might not be masterpieces, but they’re pretty dang good.

    Disclaimer: Gary is my favorite singer and I’m probably biased because of it.

  11. Jim Coen says

    What I think isn’t being commented on is that Gary is in a much better place mentally which would effect the type, and depth of the songs he chooses to record. I don’t think this far into his career he decided that it’s time to aim for commercial success.
    It’s a very good CD, just different then his past works.

  12. says

    I really wish I was hearing the songs that are very good on this album. It’s just that none of it has stuck with me at all. Aside from the songwriting, the production is just bland to me in various ways.

  13. AndyTheDrifter says

    I haven’t heard this album yet other than the lead single, but I’m disappointed to hear this album carries on the tradition of recent Gary Allan albums of being “not great, but good for a mainstream artist”.

    I’m hoping that one day Gary Allan’s music will return to the level of quality it had from 1999-2005, but I have a feeling that won’t happen until radio casts him aside entirely and he is free to make music without having to worry about commercial considerations.

  14. Anton says

    I have to say Leeann, I’m a tad disappointed. I really like your reviews on country universe. But I’ve been a Gary fan for a long time now, and I really believe he’s matched some of his previous peaks. “It ain’t the whiskey” contains enough emotion and sincerity to fill three Brantley Gilbert albums. “Sand in my soul” is an intriguing tale painted with evocative images, whereas many songs nowadays read you facts with a bare-boned vocab.
    Speaking of bones, “Bones” is a foot-stomping good time, a real treat for concerts without a pandering to arena rock. “You without me”, “One more time,” and “Hungover heart” harken back to the ’90s, a time of strong song-writing and plentiful twang. I agree that the album’s final four could have been better, but I feel the ones preceding it more than carry the weight.
    This album actually reminds me a lot of Toby Keith’ “Clancy’s Tavern.” Diverse song-writing, solid production, and a powerful voice to bring it all on home.

  15. Mike Wimmer says

    I’ll say after listening to the album more, it has grown on me. The first 8 songs are very good, but after that it kinda falls off a cliff with the reggae attempt and the two pretty sappy love numbers.

    The first 8 are all pretty good though, with It Aint The Whiskey definitely being one of the best songs I have heard in a couple years.

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