Tuesday, September 23, 2014

album review: 'sundown heaven town' by tim mcgraw

It's hard, as a critic, to talk about some acts with which you grew up. These are bands that are lodged in your formative psyche and though you might not have heard the songs for years, you still remember every line as if it was yesterday. Despite the fact I have not listened through a Shania Twain or Garth Brooks or Alabama or Sammy Kershaw album in years, I can still remember the songs whenever they inevitably come up at karaoke... well, okay, it's mostly the Shania Twain tracks because of every girls night out party ever, but the point is that I find Come On Over a hard record to judge because I grew up with it and she dropped twelve goddamn singles thanks to songwriter and future Nickelback producer Mutt Lange.

And this is something of a similar issue with Tim McGraw, one of the most popular and successful country acts of all time thanks to a quiet, sensitive middlebrow sensibility and a knack for hiring good songwriters. Unlike contemporaries Alan Jackson and George Strait, Tim McGraw has been using the Nashville songwriting machine for decades now to make material I like to describe as an auditory Xanax, especially around the time of his long-lasting marriage to Faith Hill in the late 90s. The funny thing is that Tim McGraw was a good enough performer with a strong sense of populism, so while he barely wrote any of his albums, they still managed to produce pretty damn solid singles that stuck in the memory.

But in recent years, Tim McGraw has been in a bit of a complicated situation behind the scenes, and it's shown through in his music as he's struggled to keep up with the times. The larger issue was with his label Curb Records, which milked his name into the ground through a pile of increasingly redundant greatest hits albums that traded off his late 90s success. Eventually he was able to claw his way out of his contract and move to Big Machine with Taylor Swift, but the artistic flailing on that record was noticeable. And sure, 'Highway Don't Care' was okay, but 'Truck Yeah' was easily the stupidest song he had ever released, leaving that 2013 record a bit of a mixed bag. And off of the opening single 'Lookin' For That Girl', which featured some of the most egregious Autotune I'd ever heard in country song, I was pretty concerned. That said, he did manage to return to his comfort zone of middlebrow tracks with 'Meanwhile Back At Mama's', a duet with his wife that was pretty good but not exactly inspiring considering Miranda Lambert made 'Automatic' this year, so I didn't have any idea what to expect. But I figured, 'Hey, it's Tim McGraw, and at the very least my mom would appreciate me doing this review, and I need to improve my YouTube demographics testing', so I gave Sundown Heaven Town a couple listens - what did I get?

Honestly, pretty much what I expected from Tim McGraw, given his career trajectory over the past few years - a pretty solid album that's good when it plays in Tim McGraw's comfort zone in neotraditional country and flies into wildly mixed results whenever he tries to play catch up with modern trends. It's nothing that's going to surprise you or thrill you all that much, but I don't deny that there's some pretty solid songs on this album that do raise it above average.

Let's start with Tim McGraw himself - and look, there's a reason this guy has stuck around for as long as he has in the mainstream. He might not write his own songs, but he works his ass off to sell his material and he's got the emotional expressiveness to make every single song feel heartfelt and potent. It's why so many of his more slower, intimate tracks have clicked with listeners for years now. But this album doesn't really go in that direction, and while there are ballads, much more of this album is filled with heavier, spacier country songs in the vein of recent work from Dierks Bentley, Dustin Lynch, and Brad Paisley. And this is where we run into a bit of a problem, because Tim McGraw's voice has taken a beating over the years, and while those three artists have a bit of a lower range that fits that production, Tim McGraw doesn't quite hold it as well. It doesn't help when the pitch correction is piled on so heavily like on the bro-country leftover and lead-off single 'Lookin' For That Girl', but even on more organic moments with subtler reverb, songs like 'Words Are Medicine', 'Last Turn Home', and 'Still On The Line' don't quite feel balanced with Tim McGraw's singing.

It definitely helps matters that the instrumentation makes up for a fair bit of it. Yeah, there are definitely drum machines and slicker production than I'd prefer to see on country tracks, but for the most part McGraw goes for more texture and rough edges on this album, which is definitely a welcome shift. The opening track 'Overrated' opens with banjo and gentle rollicking guitars with plenty of steel guitar balancing out the rest of the song, and the interplay is great. 'Shotgun Rider' does much of the same, with a sturdy electric melody anchoring the melody line that I really liked and is the sort of neotraditional country that's a natural fit for Tim McGraw. And when he sticks to this vein instrumentally, like on the grimy 'Diamond Rings & Old Barstools' which has some great snarl to the electric guitar, the gentle acoustic feel of 'Meanwhile Back At Mama's' that has a warmth to the production that's impossible to fake, and the album standout 'Sick Of Me' feels like a mid-90s neotraditional leftover with great melodies, an old-school songwriting cadence, and enough guitar heft to make it feel modern. And yet even on the songs where Tim McGraw can't quite match the production's weight, I do like the new spacey brand of country that seems to be becoming more popular. 'City Lights' feels a little thin with the synth drifting at the back of the mix, but 'Last Turn Home' has solid interplay between the piano and guitar, 'Still On The Line' has earnest power even despite the drum machines and backing vocals thanks to keeping the acoustic guitars in the front and confining the heavy crunch of distortion in the chorus midway to the back to balance with the steel guitar and synth, and the quiet understated power in 'Portland, Maine' matches the lyrics that reflect the darkness in the subtext of the song. That being said, the two misfires are 'Dust' and 'Keep On Truckin', mostly thanks to slight mix balance issues for Tim McGraw's vocals and the choice of overpolished guitar tones that recall some of the most forgettable bro-country. And of course there's 'Lookin' For That Girl', but I'd prefer not to acknowledge that song exists.

Now this takes us to lyrics, and where we run into a bit of a tricky situation. Because let's be honest, Tim McGraw is forty-seven and even despite the vocal effects, his age is coming through in his voice. And when you have songs that have certain cadences or verses or word choices, the disconnect between Tim McGraw and Tim McGraw's songwriters can become pretty noticeable, which can be both good and bad. In the best cases, it's the easy acknowledgement that Shane McAnally wrote 'Overrated' because it displays his typical brand of nuance and well-structured metaphors. Whereas you have 'Dust', a song that is quite literally about the titular dirt and how it gets everywhere and it's so obvious Rhett Akins wrote a song this dumb it's not even funny. But it's not just that: 'City Lights' goes for the country boy/city girl connection and features the line 'we got high on the top of that ridge' and while that line might have worked for 'Indian Outlaw' Tim McGraw twenty years ago, I don't buy it now. 

And this is the issue you run into whenever you review records where the artist has no writing credits, and that's how well the song fits with the artist and how well he can sell it. The latter part isn't an issue - Tim McGraw's game for pretty much anything - but the former becomes a bit of a problem, especially when they stray away from his neotraditional comfort zone. Take songs like 'Words Are Medicine', which tries to go for all-encompassing populism and yet then tries to abruptly change focus to become more personal and it falls completely flat, or take the lyric in 'Keep On Truckin', 'So your flop don't flip, cause your hop don't hip' - I don't care if you like or dislike rap music, that's just asinine. It's better when the songs take a more personal scope, and it's what makes songs like the hidden nuance of 'Diamond Rings and Old Bar Stools' or the quiet reflection of 'Meanwhile Back At Mama's' work, and even when playing a burnout on 'Sick Of Me', Tim McGraw can sell that realization he needs to pull his life together. But when he drifts outside of that, it gets a lot shakier. 'Shotgun Rider' is solid enough, but when contrasted against 'Portland, Maine', a more ambitious song where the subtext tells the story of a small-town hookup that strongly implies cheating, and not only does the song come across as mean-spirited but also completely unconvincing because I'm got the fairly strong feeling that Tim McGraw would never do it. 

But to summarize... this album is decent. It's got a few standouts and a few huge low points and a whole lot of interchangeable but listenable tracks in between. It helps that Tim McGraw is a good enough performer and his melodic construction is solid enough to elevate Sundown Heaven Town to above average, but I wouldn't really call it more than that. For me, it's a 6/10 and only a recommendation if you're a fan looking for more Tim McGraw. But it's not passing his best material in the mid-to-late 90s any time soon, and at this point of his career, Tim McGraw should just focus on his own lane and not spread himself too thin trying to keep up. After all, relevance comes with quality, not trends.

1 comment:

  1. Review Big & Rich's new album "Gravity." It was released today (September 23) and is the duo's first release on their own self-owned independent label.