It 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.