Tim McGraw will release his first record on Big Machine, "Two Lanes of Freedom," on Feb. 5. Produced by McGraw and longtime studio partner Byron Gallimore, the album is loaded with the hallmarks of the pair's past successes while venturing into new sonic territory. McGraw is a master of balancing lighter fare and introspection, seamlessly shape-shifting from life of the party to brooding philosopher, emoting the trickier, riskier byways of pain and regret as skillfully as he approaches the more common themes of romance and freewheeling good times.
In an interview with Bilboard, McGraw says he found recording the record's heavier songs like "Book Of John" and "Number 37405" "cathartic" rather than emotionally draining.
"I did all of the vocals in the basement of my house," he says. "I would go down at night after the kids had gone to bed and just do track after track, and I'd sing every track all the way through instead of line after line. Not that I won't ever do line by line, I will. But with this one. there was a connection that happened, especially with some of those story songs, and it made more sense to do it that way. It's a narrative, and it's easy to get off track tonally in a song like that and not realize it. But I never got emotionally drained, I got emotionally inspired."
Here McGraw discusses "Freedom's" songs, 11 on the standard release and 15 on the "Accelerated Deluxe" edition.
1. "Two Lanes of Freedom"
A big, panoramic anthem with prominent guitars and a sonic feel that alternates between Gaelic and Middle Eastern influences. "We had a great time, we spent a whole evening on that song just coming up with cool things to add to it," McGraw says. "Those tones and that feel just set the idea for the whole album, we just started feeding off of that track. When I envisioned that song it had this sort of (director) Terence Malick feel, sort of hazy."
2. "One of Those Nights"
A power-charged mid-tempo with U2-ish guitars and a mood of electric anticipation. "It's a 'making a memory song,'" McGraw explains. "There's a nostalgia to it, but I think the phrasing and the verses sound fresh."
3. "Friend of a Friend"
A wistful, atmospheric piano-based ballad with a blazing guitar solo and a super-strong coda. "That thing could've went on," McGraw says of the coda. "We had about three full minutes of that. We were all sitting there watching (guitarist Michael) Landau play the lead on that, we had it done for like an hour, but we kept making retakes because we just wanted to hear him play. Just mesmerizing."
4. "Southern Girl"
A swinging, loose cut with a playful, charismatic vocal right in McGraw's wheelhouse. "It's fun, but when you listen to it, it's a very complicated sounding record, very intricate, a jazzy sort of record," McGraw says.
5. "Truck Yeah"
With its rock guitars and up-tempo, "Truck Yeah" is totally contemporary and seems built for the stage. "'Truck Yeah' is just fun," McGraw says. "People want to analyze it, but every now and then there's no theory to something other than just having fun."
6. "Nashville Without You"
A gorgeous, haunting melody supported by mandolins and a softly percolating delivery. "It's a country lyric, it's about country music, but there's a universalism to that melody," says McGraw. "I wanted that record to have a shimmer to it. I guess the best way to describe it would be an evening looking out on a calm lake, how it shimmers. I love what it says, and I love that it follows 'Truck Yeah' on the record."
7. "Book of John"
A bittersweet ballad layered on soft guitars, this take on mortality and family seems tailor made for McGraw, who says a first listen to the demo brought him to tears. "For me, that song was cathartic," he says. "I don't have a deep reservoir of father/son relationships, I don't really have any sort of a well to draw from. I didn't have a dad, really. With my step-dad early on, it was a very chaotic, abusive world I was living in. And not knowing my real dad until older in life, we'd never really developed a strong relationship. You hear people talk about father/son relationships and what that song talks about, I can't comprehend it, and I really want it so bad. So that song to me is really intriguing for that reason."
8. "Annie I Owe You a Dance"
"It's one of those songs that just plays out your life in a lot of ways," McGraw says. "It just makes you sort of reflect and think about things."
A well-paced gem that recalls Elton John or even the Beatles, "Mexicoma" is just fun, musically, lyrically and in its production. "When we played that song over the summer, instantly it was like people had heard it for years," says McGraw.
10. "Number 37405"
This regret-laden ballad is a riveting take on consequences that finds McGraw again playing the omniscient narrator role to perfection. "It's a movie, that song," says McGraw. "'The ol' judge on the bench said son your life's got consequences.'" It had to have some gravitas. You just had to let that song talk. (Songwriter) Tom Douglas' voice had to come through on that." Regarding the song's extended coda, McGraw says, "My whole process that one was after that last line I wanted people to have time to think and absorb the whole situation. Where does he go? What does he think about? What does the whole thing feel like?"
11. "It's Your World"
This thumping mid-tempo is standout track for its rock/soul feel. "It has sort of an early-'80s feel to it, my high school years," McGraw says. "The demo was really good on that one, and we took it to another level with the guitars and the production of it. I like the vocal treatments on it, how it's got a little wetness to it. Definitely there's a certain throwback in it but at the same time it sounds really modern, it's kind of odd to have that combination there."
12. "Tinted Windows"
"It's a nostalgia song, probably the first song I found for this project," says McGraw, adding that he didn't have the luxury of tinted windows in his youth. "I couldn't afford tinted windows with my truck I was lucky to have any windows. It just talks about your first love, and there's a twist at the end of it. It's about maturing in your life, and all the things that happen with that."
13. "Highway Don't Care" (featuring Taylor Swift)
A take on freedom tinged with regret with McGraw's trademark sound, tasty licks from Keith Urban, and an inspired vocal from Taylor Swift. "There's a sultriness to it," says McGraw. "Taylor sang her ass off on that thing. This was also one of the first songs I found for this album, and I knew instantly I wanted Taylor on it. The great thing about that song is the perspective it's told from, her voice is the song coming through the radio. And Keith's guitar on there… man!"
14. "Let Me Love It Out of You"
"That one's real bluesy, real old-school R&B," McGraw says. "It's like you walk into a bar, it's kinda smoky and sweaty, and there's the best swampy, southern R&B band you ever heard playing."