Thursday, November 19, 2015

album review: 'damn country music' by tim mcgraw

It's rare I talk about titles when I review albums. Mostly because the title of an album only occasionally operates as a picture into what the album really is, and often times not even that.

But when a respected and established country hitmaker for the past twenty years drops an album titled Damn Country Music, I sit up and take a bit of notice. Not that much notice - this is Tim McGraw after all, a guy who in his entire career has never been a hellraiser, typically performing very polished, very accessible country music. And it's also not like he wrote a single song on this album - most of that at this point is being handled by the Nashville songwriting machine who have long recognized Tim McGraw as a consistently bankable star.

But I have to admit I was curious regardless, but the country music industry hasn't been kind to Tim McGraw behind the scenes. To keep him locked under contract his former label Curb Records shovelled out compilations and greatest hits albums instead of fresh material, and ever since he tore away to land on Big Machine, he's been working to crank out fresh material, with a record each year for the past three years. Now I covered his album last year Sundown Heaven Town and it was fine enough, showing some steps back towards the neotraditional scene after stabs towards a more synthetic mainstream embarrassed everyone involved, but it was definitely uneven, the moments of greatness balanced out by some truly godawful songs. And I frankly expected something similar here - sure, the album was called Damn Country Music, but I didn't expect Tim McGraw to go all Hank Williams III on us. I expected it to fall in the same vein as his last album - a few stabs at the mainstream, and maybe a little more neotraditional as he steps back into his comfort zone. Was I right?

Well, not quite. Damn Country Music, like most Tim McGraw albums, is a bit scattershot, but I do see a broader selection of ideas on display and a slightly more cohesive sound, albeit one that isn't exactly breaking down barriers in modern country. Not a perfect record by any stretch - hell, I'd be hesitant to even call it a great one - but I do think it's a slight improvement on Sundown Heaven Town and does take more risks, both instrumental and lyrical, than I think anyone would have expected with Tim McGraw, especially at this stage of his career.

So what are these risks? Well, the first thing to note comes in the instrumentation and production, which shows Tim McGraw following in the vein of Dierks Bentley, Dustin Lynch, Kip Moore, and Brad Paisley to blend in more spacey synthesizers and electric tones to create a slightly more atmospheric sound. And to his credit, he mostly gets it right - the thicker bass grooves compliment the melodic grooves well, there are plenty of steel guitar and strings to smooth in the edges, and when the drum machines crop up, they're nestled deeper into the mix so that they don't break cohesion. There are a few exceptions - I've already talked about the stiffly warped rollick on 'Top Of The World' which continues Tim McGraw's tradition of lousy leadoff singles, and the featuring presence of Big & Rich on 'California' contributes very little beyond even brighter and cleaner tones - but overall this record is agreeable, even if I do feel the production is struggling to get the tonal balance to really work. On the one hand, with the exception of his daughter Gracie McGraw on the opening track the backing vocals are almost universally too thin and too synthetic to compliment these songs, even against Tim McGraw's tenor - but on the other hand, the electric guitars have sizzle and bite that I haven't heard since Kip Moore's Wild Ones earlier this year. In fact, that record serves as an apt comparison, with Tim McGraw swapping out overly heavy percussion for acoustic and steel guitar melodies that are more gentle, and he even throws in some Celtic flute on 'Here Tonight' that came through astoundingly well.

And yet I'm not going to lie: it feels a little weird hearing Tim McGraw against tones and grooves with this much texture and bite, and a lot of this ties into his vocals. As I said, he's never been much of a hellraiser, and while you can tell he's trying to add more grit to his voice on 'Love Runs', it's clear he's a little out of his wheelhouse here. It doesn't help that most of these songs play a little broadly in terms of their sound - lots of strings and swell and it can make some songs that could use a little stripped back subtlety feel a bit overdone, even though the melodies are pretty solid. I think some of it comes into the drum balance as well - the cymbals seem to be mixed a little high in order to add more of an airy feel, and especially on 'California' and 'Top Of The World' they could have been toned back to give the melody more room.

But that's quibbles about the music: what about the lyrics, are they as cutting as I hoped? Well, believe it or not, I'd argue this record does take a few chances beyond your typical love songs, breakup songs, and checklist tracks... although in the last category the most egregious is the Chris Janson-cowritten 'How I'll Always Be' where Tim McGraw tries to cite his aversion to 'trendy crap' and I just snort with derision - that's barely even true on this album. But the title track tackling a commitment to country even after the fame starts to fade, the weary melancholy of the break-up on 'What You're Looking For' as he knows the relationship isn't working and he just wants to see her happy, or the generally cheesy 'Humble And Kind' where he gives out life advice - yeah, it's corny, but Tim McGraw's earnestness helps it click. But the song I want to talk about is 'Don't Make Me Feel At Home', a mid-tempo ballad that does admittedly feel a little overdone but features Tim McGraw trying to find love and solace in an affair from a dysfunctional marriage. And what kind of blew my mind is that any moral judgement is pitched out the window - his spouse didn't even seem to care that he was finding his relief here, which is the sort of Dan Savage-esque progressive that you'd never expect on a country record! Sure, he's a known Democrat, but still, you don't usually see that sort of thing in country handled with that level of nuance. I wish it was played a little more intimately, it'd probably hit a lot harder, but still, definitely an interesting choice to include.

So look, I'm not going to say this record is going to blow your mind - I don't think across Tim McGraw's entire discography there's been an album that would fit that description. But Damn Country Music shows an artist a little restless and willing to push his boundaries, instrumentally and with the songs he's choosing - again, he doesn't have any writing credits here. And while there are plenty of country acts - traditional, neotraditional, and from the indie scene - that are more interesting songwriters and are bucking Nashville's tendencies more effectively, it's nice to see Tim McGraw back on the right side. For me, a very strong 6/10 and definitely a recommendation if you're a fan. It might be only a small step in the right direction, but it is a step, and that's what ultimately matters.

1 comment:

  1. Please, Please, PLEASE cover "Know-It-All" by Alessia Cara!