17 January 2008

It's Not a Bad Thing

I've enjoyed Gary Allan's music for a number of years now, but I've been especially delighted by his most recent record, Living Hard, which was released just a few months ago (October 2007). I really think it is his best effort yet, finally surpassing Alright Guy (2001). It's musically solid and consistent, but with a variety of tempos and textures. It's also lyrically rich and interesting, with songs both poetic and thoughtful.

Gary Allan's had some great songs in the past, as well, but I don't think he's ever been this steady and sure footed throughout any of his other records; which is why it seems to me that he's really hit his stride in this case. Those who haven't discovered his music in the past would do well to pick up his Greatest Hits (March 2007), and then pair that up with Living Hard for a solid collection of good music. It's classified as country, and I'd have to say that's right, but it also has some genuine rock 'n' roll sense and sensibilities (of the classic Jackson Browne and John Cougar Mellencamp variety), as well as some more sophisticated musical orchestration than the typical barnyard stomp. I agree with my son that pop music needs more sax and violins, loosely speaking, and Living Hard is a stab in the right direction, as far as that goes. There's one spot on the first single from this record, "Watching Airplanes," where the strings effectively connote a takeoff, and it gives me a little thrill each time I hear that (simple mind, simple pleasures).

"Watching Airplanes" is a great song, anyway; it always reminds me of the 1999 movie, Pushing Tin (with Billy Bob Thornton and John Cusack as air traffic controllers). But it's not the best song on this new record. Actually, I'm hard pressed to identify my favorite songs, because there are quite a few on here that I enjoy very much. On the more uptempo side, "She's So California," "Like It's a Bad Thing," "Wrecking Ball," and the title song, "Living Hard," are all good fun. After numerous listens, I've not grown tired of them at all. On the more thought-provoking side, "Learning How to Bend," "As Long as You're Looking Back," "Trying to Matter," and "Half of My Mistakes" are each somewhat profound. There is real depth in this music.

Those more thoughtful and serious songs are all the more poignant when the listener knows that Gary Allan's wife committed suicide a few years ago (October 2004). "We Touched the Sun" and "Yesterday's Rain," in addition to several of the songs already mentioned, surely reflect his grappling with that painful loss. Living Hard is not his first record since the suicide; that was Tough All Over (October 2005). The wound is maybe not so raw and tender now, but has given the artist an opportunity to grow in his perspective and maturity as a human being.

I had not heard of his wife's suicide until recently. A tabloid headline about it, around the time that Living Hard was released, caused me to do a little searching on the internet. It was a second or third marriage for each of them, and they had six children between them from their previous marriages (I don't know how old any of the children were). Apparently, his wife (Angela Herzberg) developed clinical depression in connection with periodically severe migraine headaches. One evening, she was resting in bed and asked Gary to bring her some medicine; later she asked for a Coke, and while he was getting that from the kitchen she put a gun in her mouth and shot herself. Our culture tends to idolize musicians and actors and other celebrities, in a way that can far too easily deify or dehumanize them. A tragedy such as this is a reminder of their own weakness and frail mortality. I'm sorry to say that I do not know whether Angela Herzberg was a Christian or not; her death would be far more tragic and eternal if she was not.

I hurt for Gary Allan and the loss that he and his family suffered with his wife Angela's suicide. But I am grateful for the musical gifts that God has given to him, and for the solid set of songs that he has performed on this latest record of his. They are variously entertaining and challenging, and I find that I am well served on both counts. Some of my family and friends got to see Gary Allan perform live at the B-100 Birthday Bash a number of years ago (was it 2003?). It was an outdoor concert featuring half a dozen different acts from late morning to early evening. It was late in the day and starting to rain when he finally came on, but I remember being struck by what a great performer he was. I find myself similarly impressed, now, by his most recent and outstanding record, Living Hard. It's not a bad thing.

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