Since he broke through in 1994 with the one-two punch of a novelty hit (“Indian Outlaw”) and a heart-wrenching ballad (“Don’t Take the Girl”), Tim McGraw has been refining that formula. With each album, the material got stronger, but the approach remained pretty much the same. Each album would feature big, meaningful ballads with a spattering of up-tempo guffaw numbers in the mix. His previous studio album, the thoroughly excellent Live Like You Were Dying, he finally perfected this approach, and turned in his best album to date.
Three years later, he’s finally following it up, and Let It Go thankfully doesn’t try to recreate that album. Instead, Tim has taken a completely different approach, turning in a country-rock record that has surprisingly few ballads and only a token “message song” thrown in along the way. Good thing he backed off on those types of song, as the drunk driver warning “Nothin’ to Die For” is tedious and forced, the only big clunker on the album.
This is McGraw’s third album he has recorded with his touring band The Dancehall Doctors, and this is the first time that they truly sound different from the standard Nashville studio musicians. McGraw sounds like the lead singer of a kick-ass band; the musicians elevate his performance, playing off of his vocal turns and creating a sonic atmosphere that’s immediately distinguishable from everything else on mainstream country radio these days.
I’m not a huge fan of the lead single “Last Dollar (Fly Away)”, which would make a great Big & Rich song but doesn’t quite work for Tim. Thankfully, the quality gets better quickly. “I’m Workin'”, written by Lori McKenna and Darrell Scott, convincingly captures the stress of a family where each parent is working different hours. “Between the River and Me” is a surprisingly aggressive murder song which finds a teenage McGraw killing his abusive stepfather.
Even better is the duet with Faith Hill, “I Need You.” It’s a dark love song, to be sure, with a chorus comparison to a needle and a vein. Hill’s a fantastic singer, and her smoky vocal does most of the heavy lifting, elevating McGraw’s performance in the process.
There’s a bit of filler that keeps this from being one of McGraw’s best records – a few of the love songs are interchangeable, like “Put Your Lovin’ On Me” and “Comin’ Home”, but McGraw’s vocals are better than ever and the Dancehall Doctors provide strong aural wallpaper all the way through. The good thing is that McGraw’s new approach has made his music interesting again, and hopefully the next time out, he’ll be more sonically adventurous and have some more ambitious material.