March 2004

Gary Allan - See If I Care
MCA Nashville MCNF-02451-2
Released: 2003

by David Cantor

Musical Performance ***
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment *1/2

Gary Allan’s fifth album, See If I Care, is very competently performed and produced and nicely recorded. Allan, though still young, is nevertheless a veteran. He began performing at age 12 with his father and brothers and was writing songs when he was 14. He has had several hit singles and his earlier albums have done well commercially. In addition to some solid up-tempo songs that rock, See If I Care has some very pretty and catchy slower tunes, including "You Don’t Know a Thing about Me," which Allan co-wrote with Jamie O’Hara and Odie Blackmon. The players who accompany Allan do a fine job, too: Steve Nathan on keyboard, Chad Cromwell on drums, Brent Rowan and Michael Rhodes on electric guitars, John Willis on acoustic guitar, and Dan Dugmore and Robby Turner on pedal steel. And Allan’s singing is skilled, always appropriate to the songs’ content.

With all that’s going for the disc, I keep wondering why it doesn’t excite me. It’s that content thing. While the album fulfills its objectives, those objectives are artistically limiting rather than ambitious. The CD’s three-panel color promotional brochure, with four photographs of Allan that display him like a model or an aspiring actor, provides a clue to the problem. Here’s how it praises the album’s songs: "aching torch ballad"; "a song that comes, like all of Allan’s best work, straight from the heart to his audience"; "raucous honky-tonk"; "south-of-the-border Tex-Mex accordion strains"; "shows his gentler side"; and so on.

All well and good, but these qualities describe commercial viability, not artistic achievement. A Country Weekly article about how devoted Allan is to his family, "Big Daddy," suggests to me that Allan is less interested in whether the songs he performs communicate anything than he is in the image he projects. "Fans are bananas over Gary these days," the article tells us, "Witness his current smash ‘Man to Man,’ in which he sings about a guy who stands up to his girlfriend’s ex. ‘I think this song has a great perspective,’ says Gary. ‘I’ve never heard a song where the guy is talking to the other guy saying, "C’mon! This is your fault, not hers!"’" An accurate description of the song - - but nothing more. In a world where serious people are writing about serious matters and the popular song provides a wonderful venue for communication, this material seems trivial.

The opening lines of the first track, "Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey," further illustrate the problem: "Drinkin’ dark whiskey, tellin’ white lies / One leads to another on a Saturday night / Don’cha cross your heart / unless you hope to die / Drinkin’ dark whiskey, tellin’ white lies." Contrasting "dark" whiskey with "white" lies and subverting the popular oath "cross my heart, hope to die," may hint at cleverness, but it doesn’t build to produce poetry or insight - - we just get cliches about how drinking is seductive and enjoyable but leads you astray.

The opening lines of the title song start out hackneyed and stay that way: "I saw you walkin’ down the street last night, / I saw him walkin’ by your side, / I saw the way he stopped and held you tight, / I saw the look in your eyes." Then, the refrain: "Go on and tell him that you love him, / Go on and show him he’s the one, / Go on and give him every sacred thing that you used to save for us, / And see if I care – look at the way you’re tearin’ me apart, baby, / See if I care – look at the tears fallin’ in this heart, baby, / Go on, go on, go on, yeah go on go on go on, and see if I care." You guessed it: The singer’s constant, impassioned denial that he cares means he does care.

The fact that we all engage in denial and speak this way at times is merely a starting point for good writing; the objective should be to create something much more interesting and compelling than mere expression of a common emotion. But there’s also an element of dishonesty in "give him every sacred thing you used to save for us." The singer obviously means sex and he obviously means "for me." In speaking of sex as something "given" to one person rather than to another, and as an object of jealousy, he shows the phoniness of his claim to consider it sacred. Thus, a hint of something "higher" ultimately languishes in the abiding cliches.

Obviously, large promotional budgets bring the best returns when spent on performers with wide appeal rather than on those who communicate the most and are therefore likely to engage the minority, who are seeking more than self-affirmation or heartthrobs. A big promotional splash often means small art. That said, if you like popular country music and rock, See If I Care offers much more variety than many collections and accomplishes what most of them try to. It is a sincere offering, fine to tap your feet to or hum along with - - and nothing is wrong with that! It is not likely to upset good folks the way, for instance, a human breast shown on TV for just under three-quarters of a second might.