Country music is long on love song singers but short on philosophers. Too many albums released feature interchangeable romances and ruminations, tales of love gone wrong, love gone right and everything in between. How refreshing it is to hear one of the genre’s strongest voices, the inimitable Gary Allan, focus on the lessons learned along the way instead.
Living Hard is Allan’s first studio album since 2005’s Tough All Over, a modern classic recorded in the wake of harrowing experiences in his personal life. Two years later, the raw ache of that record’s emotions has faded, and Allan is beginning to put things into perspective. On the album’s strongest tracks, he’s passing on his hard-earned wisdom to anyone wise enough to listen.
On “As Long As You’re Looking Back”, he warns of the perils of getting caught up in the past, observing that “you can’t see tomorrow” when you’re still looking back. Still, the poignant “Yesterday’s Rain” finds him seeking solace in memories himself, but he’s indulging in them for comfort, not clinging to them for support. There’s an optimism running through these songs that was understandably absent on Tough All Over, and it’s hard not to agree with him when he sings on “Trying to Matter” that we should spend our time on Earth “trying to matter to those who matter most.”
On Living Hard, you find a man coming into his own, a theme that Allan has visited before on earlier records. “Learning How to Bend” and “Like it’s a Bad Thing” recall older album cuts like “Learning to Live With Me” and “Guys Like Me”, but there’s more self-assurance this time around, with Allan no longer caring much about what other people think while also submitting to the larger plan that’s out of his hands. “Learning How to Bend” in particular is noteworthy for being Allan’s strongest vocal performance to date, proof positive that not only is he the genre’s most under-appreciated male vocalists, he’s still getting better at his craft.
There are one too many rave-ups for my tastes, but he gets them out of the way early on, with the exception of “Wrecking Ball”, which feels a bit out of place among the thoughtful songs that surround it. I must admit that I was hoping it would be the Neil Young song that Emmylou Harris recorded back in 1995, but as album filler goes, it’s decent enough. It’s certainly good to know that Allan is comfortable again doing music in that vein, with the despondent sorrow of Tough All Over easing away and letting a little sunshine in, but not before some big lessons learned along the way. With hard-earned wisdom on his side, it’s easy to imagine that Allan will continue to produce the best music of his career. In the end, this is a worthy follow-up to an album that was impossible to replicate because of the unique surroundings that produced it.
Buy: Living Hard
Watch: Watching Airplanes