The first thing Tim McGraw proves on his latest album is that he really is the best male singer in country music, and probably one of the best singers of any kind in the U.S. right now. His voice just gains depth with every release, and he is able to put over any kind of mood he wants: heartbreak, outrage, lust, danger, fervor, Zen-like calm, the whole spectrum of country music.
The second thing he proves is that the best maneuver he ever made is to ditch all the fancy Nashville studio pros and record with his touring band, the Dancehall Doctors. This crack outfit more than keeps up with McGraw as he skips blithely through genres and moods; Darran Smith and Denny Hemingson do some filthy outlaw-country guitar playing on the rocked-out Warren Brothers-penned revenge tale “Between the River and Me”, and the group manages to convincingly ape the Big & Rich vibe on the Big Kenny-penned first single “Last Dollar (Fly Away)”. Not that it’s so great a song, because it’s not—the messages are all mixed up, the metaphors go awry about halfway through the first verse, and McGraw never seems to get a handle on the material. But it still sounds like a great single, due to the whip-smart playing of the Dancehall Doctors. Nice save, boys.
The third thing McGraw proves here, though, is that he is only as strong as his material. Fortunately, most of the songs here are great. The earnest blue-collar love song “I’m Workin’” seems tailor-made for him—lo and behold, it’s written by two of the smartest people in the business, Lori McKenna and Darrell Scott. “Train #10” is another home run; its ambiguity and soul match up perfectly with all the emotional timbre McGraw can muster. (He takes a rare co-writing credit here together with those pesky Warren Brothers.) And one of the best pop-country pens in the business, Hillary Lindsay, contributes the sexy power ballad “Put Your Lovin’ on Me”, which McGraw brings home in high style.
But some of the stuff here is just “eh”. Everyone works really hard on the over-amped don’t-drive-drunk anthem “Nothin’ to Die For”, but that can’t mask the fact that it’s just not that interesting. “I Need You” is a wonderful song with some biting lyrics; “I need you like a needle needs a vein / I need you like my uncle Joe in Oklahoma needs the rain” is a beautiful scary couplet. But the idea to make it a duet with Faith Hill sinks this Titanic before it even gets out of the dock, because Hill just sounds silly singing about needles and veins. I’m no Hill-hater—I was rooting for her all the way here. But she just can’t pull it off, although she fares much better providing lovely backup harmony on the closing “Shotgun Rider”.
But the main thing McGraw proves here is that he is an artist to be seriously reckoned with. He’s been knocking on this door for a number of years—covering “No Woman No Cry” in concert, duetting with Nelly, even holding his own as an actor in last year’s Flicka. (Hell, one of the best country songs of the decade is Taylor Swift’s “Tim McGraw”.) But this record is his biggest statement, and it is written in capital letters. There are moments of true transcendence here, from the whiskey-soaked westernisms of “Kristofferson” to the rocked-up outlaw motifs of the title song. Sure, not every track is a winner—but you have to admire the gusto and the ambition that went into this record, along with the effortless skill of the musicians involved.
We ain’t in “Indian Outlaw” territory anymore, y’all; Tim McGraw is making a bid to be mentioned right alongside some of the greatest country artists of all time. Another couple albums like this and he’s in like Flynn.