There’s a reason Tim McGraw has scored more than 50 top 10 hits on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart during the last 20 years: As a song interpreter — he rarely pens his own tunes — the superstar has an unerring sense for what kind of material suits his reedy Louisiana twang and tough-yet-vulnerable brand of country.
On Sundown Heaven Town, McGraw mixes tunes that feed into country’s bottomless yearning for nostalgia (“Meanwhile Back at Mama’s,” featuring his wife, Faith Hill) with self-aware songs (“Sick of Me”). It’s a solid overall effort — especially in comparison to some of the featherweight fodder topping the country charts right now. McGraw’s not ceding any ground to country’s new generation, nor is he pandering to the lowest common denominator: There’s no bro-country to be found here. But seen as part of McGraw’s canon of work, the album doesn’t match his own high standards.
Co-produced by McGraw and his longtime collaborator Byron Gallimore, Sundown Heaven Town shows McGraw happy to mostly step back and observe the world through rose-colored glasses. On songs like “Overrated” and “Shotgun Rider,” he praises the simple pleasures of having the people you love by your side. Other tunes have more grit on their bones: The Glen Campbell-esque hidden track “Still on the Line,” built around a hypnotic drum loop, confers a loneliness that lingers after the song ends. “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools” features wistful lyrics and a soulful melody that suggest Blake Shelton’s “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking” or Kenny Chesney’s “You and Tequila.”
But McGraw is at his best when he digs deeper, and Sundown Heaven Town would have benefited from more thoughtful risk-taking. His first five albums — all but his debut were multimillion sellers — established him as a cheerful, unchallenging singer who delivered pleasing, simple hits. But it was with his essential album, 2001’s Set This Circus Down, that he really came into his own as an artist, confronting his demons in the resigned swagger of “The Cowboy in Me” and the bitter disillusionment of “Angry All the Time.” On several singles that followed, he mourned the fallout of an abortion (on 2002’s “Red Ragtop”), faced up to mortality (on 2004’s “Live Like You Were Dying”) and looked at how suffocating small-town life can be (on 2005’s “Drugs or Jesus”). Much of 2009’s Southern Voice examined death from different perspectives.
Unfortunately, on Sundown Heaven Town McGraw ventures out of his comfort zone just once — and it turns out to be a major misstep. “Lookin’ for That Girl” features Auto-Tune and some truly inane lyrics, in which he refers to a woman as “a little ‘Funky Cold Medina,’ ” apparently unironically, and describes her body as a honeycomb. (What does that even mean?)
Maybe it’s too much to expect McGraw to veer left this far into his superstar career. At 47, he sounds largely happy just to be here. Good for him, but not as good for listeners: McGraw truly excels when he’s wrestling with his dark side, instead of living in the light.