Two Lanes of Freedom
Though Tim McGraw's music was among the best to be heard on country radio in the late nineties and early two thousands, recent years have seen his choice of material embarking on a gradual downward slide before bottoming out entirely with last year's Curb Records swan song Emotional Traffic. With McGraw's recent output being what it is, and with him now being in the clutches of Scott Borchetta, it's hard to approach Two Lanes of Freedom with high expectations.
Produced by McGraw with longtime collaborator Byron Gallimore, Two Lanes of Freedom is several degrees better than Emotional Traffic, but still heavily bogged down by cheap gimmickry, and by McGraw's increasing tendency to over-dramatize. The opening title track, for instance, could have been enjoyable by virtue of melody and performance, but it's all but leveled by distorted “Oh-oh-oh” chants that surface in each chorus, and that comprise a bloated, self-indulgent ending fade-out. Love-gone-wrong ballads “Friend of a Friend” and the Taylor Swift duet “Highway Don't Care” (featuring Keith Urban on guitar) are decent songs, but both are marred by over-the-top string sections and gaudy electric guitar solos.
It should hardly come as a surprise that Two Lanes of Freedom includes serious lapses in songwriting quality, with the nadir of the project being the indefensible “Truck Yeah,” and the middling current single “One of Those Nights not faring significantly better. “Southern Girl” is plain sloppy, recycling pandering formulas similar to those behind “Southern Voice,” and capping it off with auto-tuned chants of “Southern girl, rock my world….” Can any songwriter expect to be taken seriously when rhyming “girl” with “rock my world”?
At its best, Two Lanes of Freedom offers sporadic glimpses of the subtlety and sincerity that marked McGraw's best work. But even when McGraw brings the goods as a vocalist, the quality of the song material often comes up frustratingly short. Though a paean to the country music industry and its history could in theory be great, it's unfortunate that “Nashville Without You” leans on the clutch of listing classic country song titles from “Crazy” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” to “Smoky Mountain Rain” and “Fancy” – particularly considering that it's one of the album's most tastefully produced cuts. “Book of John” is a bit better, telling a finely detailed story of a character poring over photo album memories of a deceased loved one, but its title hook grasps at a gratuitous connection to the Biblical gospel of John, to which the bulk of the song's content is unrelated. The best-written song of the lot is “Number 37405,” which explores the consequences of a man's decision to drink and drive with the gentle plainspoken tone of “Red Ragtop,” and without the preachy condescension of “Nothin' to Die For.” The lyric smartly refrains from offering an ultimate resolution to the story, while McGraw and Gallimore mercifully dial back the production. It's the closest representation the album has to offer of the Tim McGraw that once was.
Though Two Lanes of Freedom has its moments that are genuinely not half bad, the unevenness of the project as a whole offers little reason to believe that the Tim McGraw who gave us Everywhere, Set This Circus Down, and Live Like You Were Dying is likely to fully resurface anytime soon – and even if Tim McGraw were to make a return to form, it's highly unlikely that Scott Borchetta would be the one to facilitate it.
Top Tracks: “Book of John,” “Number 37405”
Buy: Two Lanes of Freedom