Gary Allan delivers the emotionally rich album his fans expect while stretching his sound in multiple new directions on 'Set You Free,' the singer's ninth studio album and first in three years. The songwriting is strong from the first track to the last, with Allan mixing moments of joy and hope within his familiar anguish.

In interviews Allan said that 'Set You Free' reveals him as an optimist, but the album is far from plucky. There's an emotional arc that begins with the rocker 'Tough Goodbye,' crashes with 'You Without Me' and finishes with a smile on 'Good as New.' He shifts between brooding country rockers, hardcore blues, reggae and even slow jazz while making use of unconventional, but effective production. Nowhere does one style stick out like a prairie dog over the textured landscape of this unique, interpretative album. Every element works toward the big picture, making it easy to find yourself at 'Tough Goodbye' once again if listening on CD.

Listen closely to the lyrics. Allan only helped pen five of the 12 cuts, but he chose others that fit seamlessly with a theme he likely wasn't aware of until 'Set You Free' was finished. The strongest example is the gut-wrenching 'It Ain't the Whiskey.' A growing number of artists are recording and releasing addiction songs ('Drinkin' Man' by George Strait, for example), but Allan tells the familiar story with frightening clarity.

"Then a man started talking how the devil and the bottle was ruining my life / With last night on my breath, I stood up and said / It ain't the whiskey / It ain't the cigarettes / It ain't the stuff I smoke / It's all these things I can't forget," he sings to begin the first chorus.

Some will dismiss the funky reggae song 'No Worries.' It's not a signature track on 'Set You Free,' but it's far from a mistake on an album that depends on diversity. The next song is the sexy 'Drop,' which is reminiscent of Allan's 'Nothing on But the Radio.' Remember, Gary Allan was once considered the sexiest voice on the radio -- and he will be again if this song becomes a single.

'Hungover Heart' is another poignant highlight wrapped within an optimistic arrangement. This conflict between what one hears and what Allan says draws you closer to the music. Each track is a surprise that pays off handsomely when the time is invested.

4.5 Stars

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