Monday, November 20, 2017

album review: 'the rest of our life' by tim mcgraw & faith hill

Well, this is a bit awkward - mostly because there's absolutely no way I come out of this review looking good, especially given the complicated circumstances behind how and why this album got made.

See, I would put money on the vast majority of you knowing who Tim McGraw is - one of the most consistent hitmakers in mainstream country for the past twenty years and counting - but if you don't know your recent pop or country history, you might not know that Faith Hill was arguably even bigger than he was, especially at her peak in the pop country crossover boom of the late 90s. Seriously, she's sold over forty million records and has had top ten hits on the Hot 100 - even if you didn't like a lot of her music, in the era of easy listening power ballads she was absolutely huge.

And yet that was fifteen years ago at least, so where has she been? Well, it's tough to put your finger on why the hits dried up, but I'd argue it's a confluence of factors. She took a break from touring when she had a baby so momentum sputtered, her release schedule became more scattershot, but I'd put more on the changing trends in pop and country. In the early 2000s country got a lot rougher and more lyrically charged, and if the pop divas found it hard to transition into the R&B era without getting an edge, adult contemporary -leaning artists like Faith Hill found it even harder. I've criticized Tim McGraw for making very sedate country music, but with Faith Hill the polish was even more pronounced. Shania Twain at least had a little more rollicking energy and even that would dry up in the face of stiff competition like Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood. And when Taylor Swift showed up a few years later and pushed country's innocent side into territory that trended younger, it didn't help matters. Couple it with the bro-country boom and the club era and suddenly it's 2017 and Faith Hill hasn't released a non-Christmas album since 2005 - regardless of who you are in the industry, very few if any mainstream acts can be out of the spotlight for that long.

But Faith Hill was going to make a valiant effort anyway, and with Tim McGraw providing his cosign, they went on a tour as a couple this year, husband gallantly trying to revive his wife's career. And yet I had friends and family who were not music critics and who were fans went to those shows and the reviews were shockingly negative, that the performances were underwhelming or unpolished, that Faith Hill's hits hadn't lingered in the public consciousness and she wasn't doing a good job bringing them back. And thus I had some serious misgivings about covering their collaborative album The Rest Of Our Life, because 'Speak To A Girl' had only been okay and just like her husband Faith HIll never wrote her own material. At least Lori McKenna was back to contribute cowriting credits to two songs, but so was Meghan Trainor, so I wasn't sure this would stick the landing. So, how did it go?

...okay, look, I wish I could say this was passable. Tim McGraw left his promising critical resurgence on Big Machine to go to Arista Nashville to help push this record, the couple produced the majority of this record themselves, you can tell he's trying to frame it as a labor of love. Even if I could walk away from this saying that this could work for an older, more adult contemporary-leaning demographic I'd be happy... but the weird thing is that The Rest Of Our Life stumbles even in that category, hitting the awkward grey zone where it's too milquetoast to really be captivating music, but too clumsily assembled to be outright boring.

And here's the thing: I get what this album is trying to do. I understand its appeal, a real life married couple who are coming together in the anodyne, placid contentment that'll soundtrack plenty of middle-aged, middle class family dinners... a soundtrack that neither artist wrote but surely we could get past that, right? Well again, I have no problem with the intentions - where issues come are in the execution, and we need to start with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill as singers. I'll get into the messy vocal production in a second, but the first thing comes in how McGraw and Hill are not at their prime - hell, with every unnecessary quiver on 'Speak To A Girl' I could have called that issue - and that leads to vocal arrangements that just don't compliment each other well. At her best, Faith Hill was a belter, her best songs had arrangements that took advantage of her big clear tones and knew how to balance her subtlety - Tim McGraw, meanwhile, played to a looser, more conversational style, never having the same range but making up for it with personality and relatable charisma. Try and mesh these styles together and you're going to run into problems, especially when their vocal registers don't exactly lead to compatible harmonies, which forces Faith Hill to underplay near her lower register and Tim McGraw to go for a falsetto on songs like the title track where... okay, he's trying. On top of that, they don't exactly have great vocal chemistry either - which is definitely a problem when they're trying to sell a loose sex song like 'The Bed We Made' and it sounds completely unbelievable, especially coming from Faith Hill!

Granted, if Tim McGraw or Faith Hill had bothered to write any of their own songs on this record, maybe there would have been more of a chance of capturing some of that chemistry, which takes us to the lyrics. And here's the thing for a record like this: you want to capture intimacy, the entire crux and appeal of a record like this is capturing the relationship on display, using lived-in relatable details to capture the romance... so maybe it's not remotely a good thing when I can tell very quickly who the backing songwriters are behind these tunes, which puts a serious crack in the immersion of convincing yourself this couple are telling 'their' story. For comparison's sake, let's go back to the Courtney Patton and Jason Eady collaborative record I reviewed at the beginning of 2017 Something Together - they had the benefit of having similar styles of writing and performance, sure, but what gave that record its punch was the feeling that even if they weren't writing about their own relationship, the emotions behind the songs were informed by their marriage and real experiences. Whereas for this record you get a song like 'Cowboy Lullaby' where Tim McGraw seems more enamored by the moon and a horse than of Faith Hill, where the hook to go ride off together feels somewhat perfunctory! And that's not counting songs like the title track, where even if you can buy into the sentiment of growing old together and having kids, the level of detail and style of phrasing of Tim McGraw talking about his 'waistline growing' makes it abundantly clear Ed Sheeran cowrote this. And while I might like the details Lori McKenna injects into 'The Bed We Made', it's nothing on songs that do feel more lived in and mature from her record from last year like 'We Were Cool', where the homespun maturity had organic texture and history, where the consequences lingered and stuck with you, and her additions to the complicated relationship of 'Damn Good At Holding On' don't stick well at all. And that lack of defined stakes hurts songs like 'Break First', where there is clear there is history between the couple... but what's there is so muddy and indistinct that there's no edge or real tension to their possible hookup, or 'Love Me To Lie', which seems to be trying to romanticize the partner lying about his cheating because he's trying to spare her feelings - without a hint of sarcasm - a situation that could only exist outside of a grounded reality!

But really, outside of those issues, the overall sound of this record is fine, right? Well, this is the strangest part of this conversation for me, because not only does some of the vocal layering and production feel sloppy - only Dann Huff's work on 'Love Me to Lie' gives Faith Hill the space she probably needs, most of the rest of the vocal layering can feel oddly muddy or clashing with the higher guitar tones - but the production as a whole is all over the place. There often is a decent melodic foundation contained in some of the piano or electric guitar or pedal steel at the core of these songs, but very little if any of it can properly cultivate a sense of intimacy or organic warmth of tone, with an easy example coming in the fizzy electronic effects all around the instrumentation on 'Telluride' - why it's there, what it contributes to the song, I don't think anyone can tell you! In fact, more of these songs seem to want to default to the spacious, brittle tones that Dierks Bentley was pushing on Black a year ago - which wasn't a bad idea there because most of that record was reflecting lonely self-exploration, not this sort of intimacy! Hell, even most of Tim McGraw's typical warmer tones would have worked, but much more of this production wants to be an updated pop country sound for Faith Hill, complete with a fair few drums patterns you can't convince me were real, or those high wheedling tones of 'Sleeping  In The Stars' that'd have more of a place on a space rock record than here! Now that's not saying we can't get some decent country moments: I like the main acoustic line on 'Cowboy Lullaby' even if that song does drag in the outro, the main piano melody behind the title track is good, and even the pluckier banjo on 'Damn Good At Holding On' was alright against the simmer of organ and interesting guitar tones. But then the final three songs of the record show up and everything goes off the rails, starting with the organ-driven stab at country blues of 'Devil Callin' Me Home' - it doesn't fit the album's central ideas or themes, it sounds like nothing either artist has ever made, it's got nowhere close to the edge it needs, and with every listen to that bridge reveals more bad production decisions. And after 'Speak To A Girl' - which I've already talked about on Billboard BREAKDOWN - we get this bouncy attempt at beach-inflected funk on 'Roll The Dice' that feels painfully awkward for everyone involved, with awfully thin vocal production complete with Autotune, sloppy horn layering, and can you tell Meghan Trainor wrote this? it's an utterly baffling decision to end the record like this on every level, especially lyrical when the sentiment is to 'roll the dice' on love - is that what McGraw and Hill wanted to convey coming out of a record banking on their relationship?

But as a whole... look, again, I get what they were trying to do for this in principle, but it's clear at some point this became less about providing a solid relationship portrait with maturity or restraint and more about attempting to restart Faith Hill's career with material that is nowhere close to her best, including some truly baffling tangents that could only come from two artists who have the agency to make inexplicable pivots and nobody with the good sense to tell them to stop. And while I appreciate good intentions and the risk it probably was for McGraw to leave Big Machine to make this record, when you consider how many records these artists have sold - net worth estimations are around $145 million dollars - it's hard not to see some of this miscalculation as a pure vanity project. So no, I can't endorse this, it's getting a 4/10 and no recommendation from me. Again, it's got too many weird choices to be smooth background music and yet is way too polished and tepid to really earn them. I'd say if you're morbidly curious have a listen, but otherwise... no, there's better things to do.

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