Song Review: Gary Allan, “Mess Me Up”

Is it possible for a song to be too slick for its own good? If you’re a raw, hard-hitting performer like Gary Allan, it can be.

Allan has been kicking around country music for over twenty years now, and while he’s long past his commercial peak (he’s had one song crack the top fifteen since 2008), he remains a capable performer with a distinct rocking-yet-emotional style. “Mess Me Up” is unofficially the third single off of his upcoming album, and while it’s a decent song (and a clear return to form after his previous two Metropolitan-tinged singles, both of which bombed), it lacks that special something to really leave an impression on the listener.

The production here is undeniably modern, but reflects the movement back to a more-traditional sound in the genre. The melody is carried by an acoustic guitar on the verses and bridge, with an electric guitar emerging from the background for the chorus and some steel guitar stabs sprinkled throughout the track. The drums are mostly real and rise in prominence as the song progresses, but there’s a random drum machine thrown in halfway through the first verse that doesn’t add anything and is never heard from again. The mix creates a serious atmosphere, but it feels a bit overly polished for a Gary Allan song, and doesn’t quite reach the haunting, painful tone that it’s shooting for. Allan is at his best when his songs have a sense of raw power, whether it’s from the production (“Man Of Me”) or the writing (“Life Ain’t Always Beautiful”), and the production here just doesn’t have the intensity it needs to make its mark.

The lyrics feature the narrator asking a girl to remain in his life in some way regardless of the negative consequences he faces as a result (very similar to Dierks Bentley’s “Say You Do”), and while it’s not bad or offensive, it’s not as compelling as it could have been. The structure of the writing is looser than it should be, with some awkward syllable stretches and a chorus that unnecessarily (and jarringly) switches in and out of 4/4 time and completely ruins whatever flow the song had built up to that point. The track also goes overboard on listing the potential negative consequences while barely alluding to the positive aspects of the decision, leaving the listener to wonder what makes this relationship so great in the first place. When some of the imagery here is interesting and unique (the “get out my guitar around two in the morning” line is my favorite), on the whole it suffers from the same lack of power that the production does, and glides across the listener’s ears without registering a reaction.

To his credit, Allan himself sounds as good as he always did, and his delivery in the narrator’s role as is certainly believable enough. However, said delivery highlights his resignation at the fact that the relationship will never be what he wants it to be, causing Allan’s delivery to be more subdued and less powerful here than on his past singles. It’s a enjoyable performance, but not a memorable one, and not one that can stand on its own without support from the music and writing.

Overall, everything about “Mess Me Up,” from the production to the vocals to the songwriting, does not rise above the bar of merely existing, and leaves the listener with nothing to hold on to after it finishes. The most biting critique I can offer here is that the song inspired me to go back and listen to Bentley’s “Say You Do” and my collection of older Gary Allan singles instead of keeping my attention by itself. Allan is already fighting an uphill battle to gain traction on country radio, and this song won’t do much to help his cause.

Rating: 5/10. Ignore this song, and go check out some of Allan’s past work instead.