Sundown Heaven Town
Tim McGraw returning to form is the musical equivalent of reconnecting with an old friend, where spending a little time with them suddenly reminds you why you were such good friends in the first place.
Sundown Heaven Town is McGraw’s strongest album in ten years, his best since 2004’s award-winning Live Like You Were Dying, which I still consider his strongest collection to date. In the years since that collection, he’s been chasing trends more than setting them. Each album had its strong moments, but always fewer than the previous one. His simple formula – find a great song, sing it with enthusiasm, and keep the clutter in check – got lost along the way.
It’s not a coincidence that all of his recent awards attention have been for collaborations, usually with artists who hit the scene well after him. He’s been chasing trends, not setting them.
Sundown isn’t likely to start any new trends itself, but it does indicate that McGraw’s own voice is front and center again. The central track showcasing this is “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s”, which showcases sophisticated lyrics surrounding a simple message, and the stripped-down production allows his earnest vocal to shine. Opener “Overrated” is another gem, which starts off with a sparse banjo but soon ramps up the energy, creating an exciting track that still keeps the production tricks in check. Another winner is “Kids Today”, which makes the case for youthful mistakes with the perspective only an older person can have. He’s advocating for the young guys (and girls) but not trying to pretend he’s still one of them.
The passive-aggressiveness of “Portland, Maine” reminds me of “Just to See You Smile”, with the bitterness quite a bit closer to the surface. Again, his age works well for him here, as he refuses to continue a relationship long distance. “Portland, Maine? I don’t know where that is.” He can’t be bothered to pretend that someone who leaves his little town is ever going to come back, regardless of what they think they feel at the moment. And his pleading, raw performance on “Still on the Line” throbs with vulnerability. It’s one of his best tracks of singing to date, and proof positive that he doesn’t need all those vocoder effects on his voice to sound his best.
There are still a few of his recent bad habits that he hasn’t completely shaken off. First, the aforementioned vocoder effect. Processed vocals are a blight on contemporary music as a whole, but really undermine McGraw, who has never been a powerhouse but always got by on his sincerity, which is literally filtered out of the equation on “Lookin’ For That Girl.” Second, McGraw is still an arena headliner who doesn’t realize that things which sound great in an arena sound ridiculous on a record. A moratorium on “Oh, wah, oh” chants is long overdue.
But if Sundown Heaven Town is any indication, McGraw is remembering what works and what doesn’t, and should shake off the rest of what’s been holding him back if he keeps heading in this direction. With George Strait on the cusp of retirement, we sure could use a song-driven country boy who can’t be bothered with the flavor of the week. If there’s a better veteran out there to pick up that mantle who still gets the time of day from country radio, I can’t name them. He just needs to claim it for his own.
Best Tracks: “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” (with Faith Hill), “Overrated”, “Kids Today”, “Still on the Line”