2004 saw the release of Tim’s eighth studio album, Live Like You Were Dying. It proved to be something of a return to form after the disappointing Dancehall Doctors album, thanks to much better material, although Tim kept that production team of himself, band leader Darran Smith and Byron Gallimore, with the Dancehall Doctors again providing backing. The album’s making was overshadowed by the death of Tim’s father Tug at the beginning of the year, and it can be no coincidence that much of the material here is about contemplating loss and death and the sum of one’s life. Although Tim did not contribute to any of the songwriting, the overall feel is of a very personal selection of material.
The title track served as the lead single, and it was exceptionally successful, hitting #1 and selling a million copies. Written by Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman, it tells the story of a 40something man who is spurred by a potentially terminal diagnosis to experience various things on his “bucket list” before it is too late. The underlying Hallmark card message about living life to the full was obviously inspiring to many listeners, and touchingly it’s about being a good friend and husband as well as just having fun and engaging in dangerous sports (not something most people would actually be able to do if suffering a fatal illness). The nostalgic but even more cliche’d ‘Back When’ was, surprisingly, the album’s second straight chart topper, although it is the album’s least imaginative song, and one that makes Tim sound like an old man grumbling about changing times and new uses of words. It’s also rather disconcerting to hear the far-from-traditional McGraw complaining about “pop in my country”.
The much better ‘Drugs Or Jesus’ then faltered just inside the top 15. It’s an interesting song about being trapped in a small town, where religion and illegal highs offer the only escape:
In my hometown
You’re either lost or found
It was probably too bleak and challenging an approach to be embraced by country radio, too often inclined to the comfortably self congratulatory when examining rural or small-town life. The protagonist in this case has been fleeing from God, but seems to accept Him at the end.
The sour post-divorce tale of ‘Do You Want Fries With That?’ took him back to the top 5. It’s an entertaining if slightly cartoonish tale (written by Casey Beathard and Kerry Kurt Philips) of a man financially ruined by the breakup of his marriage and reduced to a second job serving fast food, who encounters and rails against the man who has taken his place in the family home:
Your ketchup’s in the bag
And her check is in the mail
I hope your chicken’s raw inside
And I hope your bun is stale
I’m supposed to tell you
“Please come back!”
But how ‘bout this instead?
I hope you both choke on a pickle
Man, that would tickle me to death
The final single, the reflective ‘My Old Friend’, about an old friend who has died, is quite good, but would have been more appealing given a stripped down production. It peaked at #6.
Away from the singles, Tim showed he had not lost his knack for picking interesting and often provocative songs of a very high quality. The tuneful ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothin’, written by Steve Bogard and Rick Giles, is the rueful autobiography of a man whose rebellious attitude means he has had to learn every life lesson through bitter experience, rather than heeding others’ words of wisdom.
It is one of a number of excellent introspective songs about men who have a lot of mistakes to look back on, and are prepared to look at them honestly. Rodney Crowell sings backup on ‘Open Season On My Heart’, which he wrote with James T Slater, and which benefits from one of the more restrained productions. Also well done is the melancholy Bruce Robison/Darrell Scott penned ‘Old Town New’, as a man contemplates his mistakes in the afterburn of a failed relationship. Another man contemplates a troubled life in the regretful ‘Something’s Broken’, written by Casey Beathard and Stan Home. Beathard also wrote ‘Everybody Hates Me’, this time with Ed Hill, a cheerful and fairly catchy song about ambition to work hard and get to be the guy everyone else is jealous of.
One of the highlights is the moving‘Walk Like A Man’, written by Tom Douglas, spoiled only by imtrusive production. This is a sensitive depiction of growing up with an alcoholic and abusive father, and fighting to avoid repeating the pattern:
Your daddy’s demons are callin’ your name
Don’t you listen to them ’cause they’ve got no claim
Temptations may come, that ain’t no sin
You get stronger every time that you don’t give in
‘Blank Sheet Of Paper’ is another good song, written by Don Schlitz with the Warren Brothers about a man trying to write a letter of apology and not sure how to start, unusually using the paper as the voice of the song, underlying just how inarticulate and hopeless this man is. Faith Hill supplies backing vocals, and the fiddle is prominent in the mix for a change. The protagonist of serious ‘Kill Myself’ does get there; this is not about suicide, as it initially appears to be. Rather a man admits his deficiencies and is determined to change himself.
With a generous 16 tracks, there is room for a few duds, like the dull ‘Just Be Your Tear’ and ‘We Carry On’ which sets a cliche’d message (intended to be inspirational) about gaining strength through adversity to a boring melody. It has glimpses of a range of potentially compelling stories, like a farmer faced with drought and a pregnant, abandoned and beaten teenager alone in the city. The lack of resolution to any of the stories leads to a sense of frustration in the listener. Opening and closing with a reference to the Robert Johnson crossroads blues legend, the rocked-up ‘How Bad Do You Want It?’ would have been an interesting take on the intensity of the desire required to lead a travelling musician’s life, but lacks melody, making the whole rather one-note.
As with much of Tim McGraw’s oeuvre, there is some very strong material here, too often marred by insensitive production. It continued his commercial success, selling four million sold, making it Tim’s last multi-platinum effort. Surprisingly it outsold his three best albums, reviewed by Jonathan Pappalardo earlier in the month. If you like Tim’s mature style, or are interested in hearing some excellent songs, it is easy to find at low prices.
Despite my sentimental attatchment to ‘Set This Circus Down,’ I’m going to break away from the crown and say that I would rate this one a degree higher. In my opinion, this is the strongest McGraw album I’ve heard, and the one with the most consistently solid playlist. It’s just one great song after another, though the crossover success of the title track may have overshadowed it somewhat. I also really enjoy “Do You Want Fries with That” and “Back When” – I think the latter has a lot of really clever lines in it, and it doesn’t strike me as cliche. I would give this album a solid ‘A.’
By the way, I’ve got to say I think Tim McGraw has turned out to be a most interesting choice for a Spotlight Artist. A somewhat unexpected choice that has generated some interesting discussion.
Never been a fan of “Do You Want Fries With That.” This is the one McGraw album I don’t own (next to Southern Voice). But I do love “Back When”
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