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The title perfectly sums up the album’s ambitions as Gary freely roams a stylistic gamut, from blues (“It Ain’t the Whiskey”) to jazz (“Drop”) and even a little reggae (“No Worries”). But it never comes off as some self-indulgent exercise or vanity piece. Gary’s powerful and expressive vocals lend a certain honesty to the proceedings and Gary seems right at home with whatever style he happens to tackle.
In a somewhat bold move, Gary spread out the production, handing over the reins to a couple of different producers, Mark Wright and Jay Joyce, while also helming some tracks himself with engineer Greg Droman. You might assume that would result in an inconsistent “too many cooks” sound, but the decision actually succeeds in doing the opposite. The album flows freely, again as the title might suggest, and the divergent styles truly complement one another.
Radio listeners are most familiar with the album’s lead single, “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain),” one of Gary’s finest-ever songs. But there are plenty of other treasures as well, among them “Sand in My Soul,” “It Ain’t the Whiskey,” which opens with a haunting organ intro, and the surprising “No Worries,” which proves that Gary, often the master of angst, can pull off a happy tune once in a while.
The only letdowns occur with “You Without Me” and “One More Time,” which both come off as a little trite.
Gary collaborates with some of Music Row’s top composers, and for the first time includes a cadre of female co-writers, Hillary Lindsey, Sarah Buxton and Rachel Proctor, giving the project a softer touch without losing Gary’s trademark grit.
Set You Free doesn’t sound like every other album coming out of the Nashville factory these days—and that’s definitely a good thing.