Speaking of demons, Allan speaks to “all these things I can’t forget” during “It Ain’ the Whiskey,” a song set at an AA meeting and/or church service, where one well meaning man tries to tell him whiskey, cigarettes and too many late nights are the causes of his problems. Allan knows better, though. During a slow-burning rocker, he corrects this good intentioned assumption by getting right to the root of his problem, which is a bad breakup that’s left him broken. Substances are the symptoms; post-relationship pain is the real problem. On “Sand In My Soul,” Allan describes the “Sand in my soul/Beer in my veins” that have left him in a place where he has just let himself go, even letting his hair grow long, as he struggles with the business of moving on.
Poor Allan always seems to be watching ‘the one that got away,’ either getting married or out with somebody new (the latter happens during “You without Me.”) There must be hundreds of guys that listen to Allan’s music – head in one hand, a hard beverage in the other – crying away their blues. Many male country artists excel at getting parties started and keeping them going all night long. Allan is the guy that’s there when all the parties are over. He’s there for the lonely guys; the ones that don’t have a girl to cuddle with. Think of him as the anti-Hallmark card that says what the brokenhearted are feeling inside. Instead of having to come up with the right words to describe their feelings, all these guys really need to do is blurt out, ‘I feel what he just sang.’
Experiencing a Gary Allan album can be painful. He has a crackle in his voice that says even more than the words can. Therefore, he may sometimes appear like that guy at the end of the bar. You know the one. He’s the sad sack tracing circles around the lip of his glass. His posture tells you that he’s newly – and unintentionally – single. You know he needs a friend, but you just can’t bring yourself to slide over in his direction. You know exactly what he’s going to say, and you know you have nothing in the world to tell him that will make him feel any better. He just needs a little time to himself. If you’re that tragic guy at the end of the bar, Set You Free is meant for you. Allan can sing you your feelings, without ever having to listen to your familiar story. He’s like a drug, with no feelings of its own. Just pop him in and swallow hard.
There are a few brief rays of sunlight shining through this album’s overall dark cloud. One of these is the lilting “No Worries,” a Bob Marley-like reggae song that bops along nicely. Its arrival is strangely unexpected, though. It’s like a silly Snickers commercial break during a tragic TV movie. It’s fun, but all over before you know it. Then you’re back to crying away your blues.