Album Review: Gary Allan – ‘Ruthless’

Preamble

Instead of opening with my usual disclaimers that Gary Allan is one of my all-time artists and that I’ve been disappointed with his material since 2015’s “Hangover Tonight,” I’d like to answer a question. Why has it taken him eight years to release a new album?

Now, the surface level answer is easy – that, being a run of failed singles that never took off or established any forwarding momentum. But does that really matter with Allan? Granted, he’s had a consistently solid run over his now 25-year career, but his chart success has always been spotty in, say, an Eric Church vein; he’s an established presence within the genre, but he’s never outright burned up the charts, so to say, and certainly not with every single. And unlike today where radio airplay doesn’t matter as much in establishing a legitimate superstar, in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Allan’s spirit and attitude toward the music business was something to be admired. Like the aforementioned Church, Allan had always established himself as an outsider within the genre’s mainstream, but unlike Church, it never felt forced. He found success on his own terms, and through a sound that was wonderfully individualistic for its era – particularly his run from Smoke Rings in the Dark to Tough All Over – but it always felt like greater success was something he could take or leave and ended up finding anyway.

So it’s telling that, in various interviews leading up to the release of his newest album, Ruthless, he cited not finding that next big single for radio amid the bro-country era as the biggest stalling point behind his absence. I’m of two minds on it. First of all, one could argue the mindset didn’t fit Allan’s artistic persona in the slightest, especially when bro-country has been dead since at least the mid-2010s. And while he also cited not wanting to fit into that sound or era, trying to make it work to his advantage just scans as slightly … odd, given that he’s always worked to find his own separate lane, trends be damned. On the other hand, I also get it. “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” was the unlikely comeback single that reestablished Allan’s name in the early 2010s and could have led to something more … that is, before bro-country happened and something like “It Ain’t the Whiskey” sank like a rock. Even with his track record, I get trying to capture lightning in a bottle again.

But let’s be blunt: country radio even from a decade ago is a different beast from country radio now, and bro-country isn’t solely to blame for that. In a time where it’s easier than ever to establish or further a career without clinging to old, outdated models, Allan’s attitude reminds me of Alan Jackson’s toward country music in general this year: understandable to a degree, but also slightly misguided. So I’ll be blunt once more and say my main disappointment with Allan’s material post-Set You Free has been one of bad tonal inconsistencies that don’t fit his style well. And I had my worries when I saw some of the co-writers involved with his newest project. At the same time, those early singles were completely scrapped along with an entire album apparently, and while I’m not crazy about “Waste of a Whiskey Drink,” it’s at least a little more within his wheelhouse. There’s only one way left to determine if this is all worrying for nothing or if Allan is heading in a completely different direction henceforth.

Gary allan the hard way

The review

After eight long years and countless questions, Gary Allan is certainly back with Ruthless … albeit in a compromised way that makes this is most oddly misshapen project yet. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would and do think it’s decent, but if there was any evidence that there’s likely some clear conflict between what Allan wants to do artistically and what his record label wants him to do commercially, it’s this album.

As for what hasn’t changed, Allan himself is still a master performer in terms of emotive nuance and subtlety, and while this record doesn’t offer as many showcases for that as past albums did, there are slight slivers here and there. On the other hand, there’s also tracks that tap into his moodier and cynical-in-a-good-way persona, and while it feels more like Allan operating at his base comfort level here, considering how far he’s strayed from it, I’ll take it. He may be carrying “The Hard Way” on performance alone, but it’s a great isolated moment of hard living that he sells with the same devil-may-care attitude and seedier ambitions that’s fueled his best work within this vein. And while I think “What I Can’t Talk About” panders a little in its execution, songs about turning to music for healing purposes are always going to work within my own wheelhouse, and with that great hook, it’s another example of that.

I think what I find odder is that those two tracks are on this album, because this is likely Allan’s most pedestrian listen as far as the content is concerned. No, there’s no bro-country or even boyfriend country here, but there are a lot of relationship songs that fill up the record, enough to where the better tracks overtake the lesser moments. To be fair, even if he’s only got one writing credit here, Allan’s material has always sold itself with deeper dramatic stakes in the execution and presentation to keep things interesting, and while those stakes can sometimes come across predictably, they’re usually enough to work. I like that “Trouble Knows Troubles” elevates both partners equally as two lonely people needing that special connection for one night and hoping it leads to more, and while “Slide” comes just short of slipping into “I’m just a man” territory in trying to mend and further a relationship, I appreciate the honesty shown in the main character’s hesitation to give in to the relationship and ask for a slower pace to keep it going. But you’ll also have tracks aiming for similar territory in “High As I’ve Ever Been” and “Temptation” that scan as more generic in the overall buildup and payoff. They’re not bad, but they’re easily weaker moments.

Still, I’ll take those moments over others that address women in a more demeaning way, because this album can get ugly at times. I’ve already addressed the purely bitter pettiness running through “Waste of a Whiskey Drink” that says more about its main character than the ex in question – I see your name in the writing credits, HARDY – but between the clunky flow and awkward pandering of “Unfiltered,” a chest-pumping anthem to honesty and being an outlaw of sorts that Allan’s typically always been above and sells much better on “The Hard Way,” there’s some real duds here. And then there’s “SEX,” which tries to lump teenage pregnancies, homosexuality, and casual bopping, among other topics, into a song about … the joys and despairs of sex, I think? Beyond him taking all the fun out of the exercise with the oddly minor progression, it’s telling that the consequences of it are told through the woman’s perspective; it’s not a good look for an oddly dour song. It’s a shame, because it has one of the better basslines here.

Of course, on the note of overall sound and production, while I expected this to be the most … interesting point of the discussion, for the most part, Ruthless is well within Allan’s wheelhouse in a good way. But it’s also easy to hear how many different producers were involved with this project, because tonal consistency gets completely thrown out of the window with this conversation. And while the band that played on Smoke Rings on the Dark is (mostly) back, this is not that album. I’ve already explained why I don’t like the weird overproduction on “Temptation,” especially in the drums that damn-near clip the mix or the strings that add an oddly unneeded tonal clash. But there’s only one other moment here that feels like it’s trying for something trendier in the title track, and while I like the overall horns that creep through in the low-end, Allan is not the sort of smooth performer who can pull this soul ballad off convincingly, even if he’s fine on a technical level. He’s better suited for something more playful like the Jesse Winchester cover of “Little Glass of Wine,” which, with those little lo-fi crackles in the acoustics and fiddle pickups, remind me of a late ‘90s cut in a great way. It’s a really welcome moment in the latter half of this album. Actually, between it and the darker swell of the groove driving “The Hard Way,” this album ends with its best moments. His penchant for minor tones has always lent his material gravitas and more interesting dynamic swells, and it’s a shame that wasn’t implemented more here.

In between is more of a mixed bag. The percussion lines are often too loud in the mix, and Allan himself is on “High As I’ve Ever Been,” but for the most part this is solid country-rock music with better-than-expected melodies and hooks to make up for it. Unintentional as it likely was in capturing the atmosphere, I like the drooping, moodier guitar tones added to “Til It Felt Like You” to add to its misery, heavy and blocky as they are. The same can be said for the warped tones and shuffling percussion driving “What I Can’t Talk About” to give it that steady, stomping drive it deserves. On the other hand, when the mix is lighter and the slightly buzzy, glistening touches of the guitar tones and well-tempered acoustics on “Pretty Damn Close” get to shine, it’s another nice touch. It’s part of why I appreciate “Trouble Knows Trouble,” especially for that huge swell when the chorus kicks in.

As a whole, though … look, call it the benefit of lowered expectations, but for as much as I worried about this album, it is a solid listen that shows Allan getting somewhat back on track. But it also feels like a compromised effort that shows how he may still have his eyes glued squarely on a possible return at country radio, and if we’re measuring it up to the bar he’s set, it’s a decent album – but not a great one. For now, I’ll take this, and it’s good to have him back, but I’m going to keep my eyes peeled for that next great project, because I know he’s still capable of throwing caution to the wind and reaping the benefits from it.

(Strong 6/10)

  • Favorite tracks: “Little Glass of Wine,” “The Hard Way,” “What I Can’t Talk About,” “Slide,” “Trouble Knows Trouble”
  • Least favorite tracks: “SEX,” “Unfiltered”

Buy or stream the album

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