Whether it was written with this in mind or not, the playful opener to Sundown Heaven Town, “Overrated”, comes across as quite a few things all at once. It’s a barn-stomping good time celebrating simpler days and simpler things, certainly. And yet it isn’t hard to hear it as a sly dig at the Luke Bryans and Jake Owens who are nipping at McGraw’s heels in the current country marketplace. Intent aside, it gets his thirteenth disc off to a fine start. On his second album for Big Machine, McGraw sounds comfortable in his own skin again. Where Two Lanes of Freedom was his big escape record, celebrating being able to make all the kinds of music that Curb would never let him make, Sundown Heaven Town is the sound of settling into a well-worn groove and having fun with it.
Longtime producer Byron Gallimore reigns in some of the over-the-top instrumentation and sounds that occasionally made Two Lanes of Freedom sound a bit too busy. McGraw has called this album a microcosm of his career up to this point, and the description fits well. “City Lights” is a nicely laid-back follow up to the opening track, hitting that sweet spot of lovestruck country balladry with just the right bit of crunch mixed in to give it some grit. And as if to silence the tabloids who love to snipe at his marriage to Faith Hill, the joined-at-the-hip-and-loving-it tune “Shotgun Rider” sends a clear “We’re doing just fine, thank you” message to any doubters. “Dust” sounds a bit too easy, a bit too safe. One look at the liner notes and seeing Rhett Atkins as one of the songwriters explains that pretty quickly. Not a bad song necessarily, but the sheer number of well known artists he’s penned tracks for leads to his songs starting to sound a bit too much like each other. That aside, it’s to McGraw’s credit that he manages to give even these tried-and-tested sounding tunes the kind of country-rock polish he does best, and makes them sound like his own.
Near the end of this album’s just-right running time, “Lookin’ for That Girl” comes across as the obvious attempt to stay “with it”. No two people seem to have the same thing to say about it, but it’s a polarizing track to say the least. The creep of Auto-tune is less lamentable than the song’s topic. Truly, it can seem off-putting that a happily married man would choose to sing a track like this, even through the lens of playing to his die-hard fans. It’s a pleasant enough pop-country lark, but it’s something that feels like what Curb would have told (more like forced) him to put on a record he would have made while still under their thumb. McGraw is arguably at a point in his career now where he doesn’t need to compromise in this manner. Early reception to the track when it debuted as a single lends definitive support to that thought. This comes to mind even more seeing how much better received the second single “Meanwhile back at mama’s” was. And it deserves to be, unfolding as a classic piece of story-telling country Americana with the McGraw touch, with a healthy dose of Faith Hill mixed in. Some might hem and haw over how silly it sounds for someone with as much money as McGraw now has to be singing about barely keeping up the payments on his truck. Some might, but that’s missing the point. McGraw is not the first successful musician to release a track built from the ground up to relate to their audience, and he’s certainly not going to be the last.
If Two Lanes of Freedom was the big shake-off-the-blues country-pop freak-out (with Lil Wayne pumping on ipods and all that), Sundown Heaven Town is the sound of a veteran country star delivering a nicely varied platter of all the things he does best. That McGraw manages to pull this off from start to finish without once sounding like he’s sold his craft down the river to fit in with the times is even more impressive, and a sign of even more good things to come.