Tough All Over

Washington City Paper | December 9, 2005
Tough All Over

Gary Allan

MCA Nashville

Any album that comes with a suicide prevention-hotline number in the liner notes is bound to be a downer. Gary Allan’s latest, Tough All Over, was released one year after his wife, Angela Herzberg, killed herself, leaving Allan to raise their blended family. If there’s a genre that can do justice to such a sad story, it’s surely the kind of wrenching C&W that this California native doled out on his previous five albums, and Allan does a fantastic job of it—even if it is sometimes hard to listen to. He lays his pain bare with tracks such as “Best I Ever Had,” a Vertical Horizon cover and the record’s lead single. Allan sends this onetime pop throwaway down a dark path with a scratchy voice that sounds as if it had been screaming in agony from a rooftop or indulging in a late night of drinking. But it’s not just Allan’s voice that reveals his distress; his words suggest a deep isolation that keeps him even from the solace of fond memories. Take the lyrics to “I Just Got Back From Hell”: “I just got back from hell/And I guess to tell the truth/Well, I’ve been mad at everyone, including God and you.” The song is defiant in the face of tragedy, even accusatory. A swingy number called “Nickajack Cave (Johnny Cash’s Redemption)” lifts things up a bit, but even if it’s got a sassy rhythm, the tale of a worn-out Johnny Cash waiting to die in a cave in Tennessee is still not exactly light. The album’s only truly uplifting moment comes when Allan sings, “Life ain’t always beautiful/But it’s a beautiful ride” on “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful.” It’s the one song that hints at any redemption for Allan, and it goes a long way toward keeping Tough All Over from self-parody. The glass may not be half-full, but at least it’s not totally drained and smashed against the wall. Here, as well as on the more shattered tracks, Allan shows that he’s at his best at when dealing with the hard stuff.

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