Tim McGraw has been country music’s top dog since Garth Brooks jumped the shark with the Chris Gaines fiasco back in 1999. Since then, there’s been little question regarding who rules the roost, as McGraw has been on a history-making run of hits and has ushered in, perhaps more than any other single figure, country’s current era of broad-sweeping commercial success and rock-leaning radio domination. McGraw has consistently chosen songs that zero in on the Country Belt’s pleasure zone –country-enough tunes about the good old days, girls in their summer clothes, trying to be a better man, and getting down on the farm. In addition, McGraw has helped spread his popularity beyond the tire-swing and gun-rack set by acting in Oscar-nominated films, collaborating with rappers, and openly supporting Democrats and other lefty issues, tricky waters for any country act. Plus, he is, by all accounts, a genuinely decent fellow, dedicated to monogamy and fatherhood. And he looks good. Remember when guys expressed surprise that he was able to bag the likes of Faith Hill early in his career? That is, until their girlfriends explained that Faith was actually the lucky one. They’ll also tell you that McGraw looks better in his blue jeans today than he did during his mullet phase twenty years ago.
But, dammit, time waits for no man, and no one stays on top forever, especially in mainstream country music’s changeable format, where new artists break every couple of days. For years, the likes of Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, and Keith Urban have posed threats to McGraw’s throne, and any number of upstarts continue to infiltrate suburban-teen earbuds. McGraw has, of course, been hearing these footsteps for years already, and no modern-era country star has chronicled the perils and joys of middle age more than McGraw. The dude embodies country’s default sentimentality, nostalgia for lives and loves gone by, resolve for the next 30 years, and pleasure-seeking enthusiasm for the here and now, even if it means riding 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu.
So now that Tim McGraw is closer to 50 than he is to 40, midlife is taking on more artistic urgency in a genre that, in terms of record sales, heavily favors youth, like all post-‘80s pop. McGraw’s strategy, then, has been to work quickly, his only chance to keep pace with younger artists like Carrie Underwood and Zac Brown Band, who record and tour at a breakneck pace. McGraw’s desire to get new albums out so fast that you’re never a fortnight away from a new Tim single was recently thwarted by his longtime label, Curb, who held on to 2012’s Emotional Traffic over a year after McGraw had delivered the album to them, a decision that led to mutual lawsuits and McGraw’s departure from the label.
Which brings us to Two Lanes of Freedom, McGraw’s first album on Big Machine, home to fellow platinum-clubbers Taylor Swift and Rascal Flatts. And as one would expect from newfound artistic license, it’s McGraw’s most conspicuous attempt ever at modern pop-country relevance, an effort to cling to the top. In the process, Two Lanes is all over the road, bringing the Mick Mars guitars, pop-synth hooks, quadruple-tracked choruses, a Lil Wayne reference, and, yes, an Auto-Tuned vocal bit. In pre-release publicity, McGraw has offered all the proclamations of finally being himself, feeling like just getting started, etc., that you’d expect from such a label jump.
Such declarations usually spell trouble, but Two Lanes, as it turns out, is far better than you’d expect from a midlife crisis album from an artist nakedly attempting to sound young and up-to-the-minute. First of all, McGraw is no idiot, so he’s not going to make a fool of himself nor abandon his real-bad-boy/real-good-man mojo. Yes, sonically the album piles on the rock flash and the candy-coated clichés, but the record’s success comes down to what has defined all of McGraw’s records: his knack for choosing songs from Nashville tunesmiths and singing them reliably well.
McGraw doesn’t write his own material, another factor that puts him at odds with prevailing winds, but he’s cultivated an impressive body of work that sounds as though it all comes from a coherent personal manifesto, and the tunes here carry on his favorite themes but with a special emphasis on – you guessed it – freedom. Even here, ironically, he breaks no new ground, employing the road as the great freedom metaphor, focusing on cars and independence (the tile cut, “Truck Yeah”, “Tinted Windows”, “Highway Don’t Care) with nearly Springsteenian fervor, as if a nod to one his heroes.
Some of the new moves don’t work. McGraw’s sole attempt to affirm his classic-country bona fides comes with “Nashville Without You”, a song that pays tribute to Willie, Cash, Jones, Hag, Tammy, Dolly, et al., an effort more effectively delivered by Brad Paisley on “This is Country Music” in 2011. Brad’s song was a smash, so it’s no surprise that Tim would moneyball in a copycat version; in fact, Tim namechecks some of the exact same songs that Brad did. The new record also contains a number of piano-based weepers about bittersweet memories (“Friend of a Friend”, “Annie I Owe You a Dance”) that aren’t melodically strong enough to hang with McGraw’s best ballads.
Among the piano ballads, the best are the drunk-driving prisoner’s lament “Number 37405” and the sweeping teenage anthem “Tinted Windows”, tunes that sound fairly country by today’s standards. It’s when Tim tries on the bouncy pop confections that the record stumbles most, heading into middle-of-road nowhere for the utterly forgettable “It’s Your World” and the sloppy, inauthentic “Mexicoma”. McGraw works hard to shed every scrap of country on these tunes – just compare Tim’s sincere delivery on the title cut here to, say, the Grandpa Jones twang of “Down on the Farm” a couple decades ago.
Still, like most singers who rely on outside writers, McGraw is remembered for his singles, and there’s enough here to keep the party going for McGraw. The silly, hillbilly proud “Truck Yeah”: I like it. The sweet, hooky “One of Those Nights”: I love it. The soulful throwback ballad “Let Me Love It Out of You”: I want some more of it. Overall, Two Lanes of Freedom is uneven but likeable, just like most Tim McGraw records. However, if Tim wants to embrace artistic freedom and stay relevant, he would be better served playing more authentically to his strengths. Indeed, Taylor Swift’s cameo here doesn’t so much prove that McGraw is a part of Taylor’s world as it reminds us that the world that Tim has ruled for so long has changed.