New year, new label, new album -- McGraw charges back with "Two Lanes of Freedom."
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Big Machine has plenty to work with in the 11 songs that populate the standard edition of Two Lanes of Freedom (the "Accelerated Deluxe Edition" has 15). McGraw is a master of balancing lighter fare and introspection, navigating the byways of pain and regret as skillfully as the more common themes of romance and freewheeling good times.
The title track is a big, panoramic anthem with prominent guitars and a sonic feel that alternates between Gaelic and Middle Eastern; second single (after "Truck Yeah") "One of Those Nights" is a power-charged midtempo with U2-ish guitars and a mood of electric anticipation; "Friend of a Friend" is a wistful ballad with a spirited guitar solo and memorable coda; and "Book of John" is a cornerstone of the album, a big-themed take on mortality in a vein that has served McGraw so well in the past (think "Live Like You Were Dying"). Another standout is the regret-laden "Number 37405," a riveting take on consequences that finds McGraw again playing the omniscient narrator role to perfection.
Skillful sequencing keeps the set from being a downer, with songs like "Southern Girl," the R&B-flavored "It's Your World," the Beatles-esque "Mexicoma" and the backwoods rave-up "Truck Yeah" tapping into McGraw's more playful impulses. The lattermost track, debuted on McGraw's summer stadium mega-tour with Kenny Chesney and released as the leadoff single, proved an immediate hit with country fans, having already sold 593,000 digital downloads, according to SoundScan, and reaching No. 6 on the country singles chart.
Another song sure to explode beyond McGraw's core fans: an inspired pairing with Taylor Swift on "Highway Don't Care," a softly percolating carpet bomb, with Keith Urban adding tasty guitar licks. McGraw and Swift are linked by more than the label they now share. The single that introduced Swift to the world in 2006 was "Tim McGraw," a song about its namesake providing the soundtrack of a romance that has run its course. McGraw says he didn't know Swift - who he calls "the biggest artist in the world" - when her debut single was released. "The first thing I thought was, 'Have I gotten that old?'" he says with a laugh. "I didn't realize she was like 12 or 13 when she wrote it. It's a great song. Taylor is really special, and she's gotten exponentially better with every project. She owns her style now. Instead of searching for a style or trying to be something, she owns who she is."
McGraw says Nashville tunesmiths are writing killer songs these days. "I hear hits every day. I pass on songs all the time that I know are hits," he says. "But I don't want to just do hits." The artist has to reconcile himself with the fact that what he records he may well have to sing for the next 20 years, a thought that "shows up quite a bit" in the winnowing process, he says with a laugh. "I'll hear something and think, 'I just don't want to play that.' Byron and Missy, we've worked together for so long. She, in particular, narrows it down, but I still have to go through thousands of songs. I trust her ears to get close to what I'm looking for."
McGraw's interpretive skills have an uncanny way of reaching listeners, which he attributes to "lack of ability more than anything else," he says. "I never try to oversing. I try to be subtle in what I do. I like it to be dark in the studio when I'm doing vocals. I don't have any lyrics to look at, and I try to picture me sitting there on a bar stool right across from somebody, me just talking to them, trying to get a message across. There's a difference between singing at you and singing to you. A lot of what we do is telling you how we feel. But the real key, I think, is telling somebody else how they feel. Even better is if you can tell them how they feel and they didn't even know they felt that way until they heard that song."
McGraw says he views Two Lanes of Freedom, as he did his previous records, as "a watershed moment in my career. It's a time where I say, 'All right, let's see if I can go another step up. Let's see if I can find a deeper well in what I do artistically.'"