On his 2003 See If I Care, Gary Allan sang, “There’s no more smoky bars in California/There ain’t no wild life left in Tennessee,” and set the lyrics to a super-modified Tex-Mex two-step. What saved songs like “Guys Like Me” and “Songs About Rain” from formalism was the sense that Allan loved to color in the earth-toned details that many another conceptualist (Dwight Yoakam comes to mind) left out of their post-Bakersfield country. There was real grit in his drinking songs, real passion in his Orbison-esque ballads, and real quirk in the Allen Toussaint–like powerpop of “Nothing On but the Radio.”
Tough All Over, recorded after Allan’s wife committed suicide in 2004, keeps the quirk; Allan is such a canny singer, producer, and song-picker that every lick or shuffle-away-quick coda only serve to heighten the sense of something awful fought against and subdued by sheer force of personality. So when Allan sings, “Ring, ring, you ain’t nothing but a thing/Yesterday we used to hold her,” it registers neither as ghoulish nor melodramatic—”Ring” is a conceit, but funny like Faron Young’s “Hello Walls” it isn’t.
Always in control, Allan possesses an almost unhealthy understanding of how nuance mimics emotion, creates image. That image has evolved: The young California executive striding toward an airstrip rendezvous on the cover of 1999’s cool, sexy Smoke Rings in the Dark has become the shadowy presence, half in a doorway, who appears on Tough All Over. His command transforms the cold, self-accusatory “Promise Broken” into a moving statement of shared humanity when he sings, “Disappointment, disillusion/Despair, confusion/I’ve seen it all in their eyes.” And it doesn’t hurt that the tone he achieves in “Promise” and “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful” is rich and seductive—this is deep pop that leaves problems unsolved but fears temporarily assuaged.