It’s no secret that Tim McGraw has been itching to unveil new material on a new record label.
After a protracted legal dispute with Curb Records, his recording home since his 1993 debut, comes the aptly titled “Two Lanes of Freedom” on Big Machine Records (home to Taylor Swift, who, if you recall, arrived in 2006 with a song called “Tim McGraw.” She has a presence here as well).
What’s often been refreshing about McGraw throughout his 20-year career was his willingness to take risks, whether it was recording with Nelly or popping up on a Def Leppard album.
“Two Lanes,” his 12th studio album, makes no such detours, which is both disappointing and strange. A fresh start on a new label would seem the precise time to try something adventurous. But perhaps McGraw is content to placate fans with a collection of ballads and rockers that pays homage to family roots (even the Braves get a nod in “Book of John”), Southern girls and a precious truck.
What McGraw is extraordinarily adept at is outclassing his mundane material, and he repeatedly proves that talent here. His voice is non-descript, yet it is perfectly suited for a song such as “Nashville Without You,” where pedal steel guitars sigh and whine as McGraw laments about a “country boy” who can’t survive without his one true love. Fortunately, the song’s sumptuous chorus overpowers its inherent hokiness.
There’s a lot of saccharine blandness on “Two Lanes,” from “Southern Girl,” with its lazy lyrics about girls who talk slow “like Tupelo honey” to the major hit, “Truck Yeah,” a dopey fist-pumper that burps and bellows through its stereotypical country machismo. The song does nothing to advance the country genre, but will do plenty to elevate beer sales during McGraw’s upcoming tour (a May 12 date at Aaron’s Amphitheatre at Lakewood was just announced).
Occasionally, though, McGraw breaks out of the Country Safety Zone. “Mexicoma,” which he performed at last summer’s Georgia Dome concert with Kenny Chesney, sounds like the twangy love child of Ben Folds Five and Fountains of Wayne dusted with some N’Awlins swing, while the title track is both musically interesting and ready-made for concert singalongs, especially when it plows into its U2-like “whoa-oh-oh” refrain.
While fans will get a giggle out of Swift and McGraw pal Keith Urban guesting on “Highway Don’t Care,” the song is hardly indicative of McGraw’s most memorable work.
But he doesn’t seem to be striving for unforgettable here – merely a well-produced batch of familiarity.