Tim McGraw has never impressed me as one of the great country voices, but where he frequently has impressed me is in his choice of interesting material, the kind of songs which are worth hearing in anyone’s hands. His tenth studio album is produced by the same production team of McGraw, Byron Gallimore and Darran Smith (the lead guitarist in Tim’s band the Dancehall Doctors) as Tim’s last three, with backing from the Dancehall Doctors on all but one track, occasionally augmented by additional musicians or string sections. The sound is definitely quite rock-influenced, and a long way from traditional country, but the production is a good deal more restrained than on much of what is emerging from Nashville at the moment. Overall, there isn’t much variation in tempo or melody, but the material is mostly interesting and adult. There isn’t much to appeal to the children and emotional adolescents at whom current radio playlists seem aimed, and this is a good thing. I don’t like everything here, but it is a serious attempt at making an artistically satisfying album.
It gets off to a discouraging start. Opening track ‘Still’, written by fellow-Curb artist Lee Brice with Kyle Jacobs and Joe Leathers, is a very well-written song with a nice reflective feel and effective restrained vocals in the verses about seeking refuge from the stresses of the world in memory and imagination, and finally in church, but the chorus is musically rather pop-sounding, with strings and detectable vocal processing in places. The next track, ‘Ghost Town Train (She’s Gone)’, a heavily allusive song written by Troy Olsen and Marv Green about a woman leaving, is a bit dull and emotionally unconvincing with a lot of soulless “oh nos” despite some nice fiddle lines from Dean Brown.
Things really start to pick up with ‘Good Girls’, the first of the well-chosen story songs which dominate the song selection. The downbeat melancholy tale of a woman’s murderous response to her husband cheating with her best friend was written by the Warren Brothers with Aimee Mayo and Chris Lindsey, and is well played out although I don’t much like the tune on the chorus.
There is an unusually strong focus on story songs here, the best of which is the genuinely outstanding ‘You Had To Be There’, a compellingly bleak story about an absent father meeting his bitter son for the first time when he visits him in prison, written perfectly by Kenneth Wright and Casey Beathard. We never hear what the young man is in prison for, and it hardly matters; the moral impetus is all with the boy blaming his father’s absence for his own wrongdoing as he chides him:
“If you’re here to steer me right, man you’re too late…
Its about a teenage girl against the world who was left there high and dry
About a kid who might have stood a whole better shot at life
But you had to be there and I’m talking from day one
That’s the only time a man should talk through glass to his new son”
This is one of the best songs I have heard this year.
‘Love You Goodbye’ (written by Tom Douglas and Jamie O’Hara) closes the album with another tale of an inadequate father who fails his son, which starts out equally downbeat, but this one turns out to have a happier ending and a softer center, although it could do with a more attractive melody alongside the swelling strings. This track is the only one not to feature the Dancehall Doctors.
‘Mr Whoever You Are’ is the poignant and sympathetic portrait of a female factory worker so desperate for love she goes home with a nameless succession of guys she meets in a bar, written by Sean McConnell, who wrote one of the better songs on David Nail’s debut album earlier this year. It has a pretty tune, which marks it out on an album generally rather lacking in melodies, and one of the best vocals on the album, but the first verse scans a little awkwardly. Nitpicking aside, it’s still one of my favorite tracks.
‘Forever Seventeen’ is a tender address to a woman growing older, set to a pop-influenced melody, and is the oldest song here, written in 2002 by Joe Doyle and Josh Kear.
The very dark (and rock)-sounding ‘I’m Only Jesus’ (written by the Warren Brothers with Pat Buchanan) is fascinating lyrically as Tim takes on the voice of God telling the stories of various sinners who refuse to be saved, and one believer:
I sure wish you’d believe
And I’ll help you if you ask me to
I gave every star a name, the sunshine and the rain
But I can’t decide the road you choose
That’s up to you
I’m only Jesus
‘I Didn’t Know It At The Time’, written by the SteelDrivers’ Chris Stapleton with Lee Thomas Miller, also sounds downbeat with its look back at youthful hopes and dreams, contrasted with the hard-learned experience of maturity, and is another good song:
I never thought good jobs were hard to find until I let my pride cost me one
I never thought my whole life would change til I heard the doctor say I had a son
I never really thought that I was lost until I heard my dying mother sing Old Rugged Cross
And I didn’t know all those years ago how the years would go flying by
Thought I knew it all but I was wrong and I didn’t know it at the time
‘If I Died Today’ is more banal in its reflections on mortality.
Leadoff single ‘Its A Business Doing Pleasure With You’, a punchy complaint addressed to a woman too interested in material things, is very reminiscent of some of Tim’s early hits and actually quite fun in a slightly dated way. It was probably picked for radio as one of the album’s few uptempo and radio-friendly moments, but it peaked on the chart earlier this year at an unlucky #13. It’s actually about a serious girlfriend with too-expensive tastes, although the slightly awkward title/hook makes it sound an altogether sleazier situation. Current top 20 single ‘Southern Voice’ is basically an uninteresting list of famous southerners which frankly goes nowhere. Naturally it’s a hit.
As a whole this is definitely one of the better major-label releases of the year.