Album Review: Tim McGraw, Sundown Heaven Town

Tim mcgraw sundown heaven town

Tim McGraw
Sundown Heaven Town

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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”

11 Comments

  1. I would have to agree that Tim’s “Live Like You Were Dying ” album is his strongest collection to date. It’s the only McGraw studio album that I liked well enough to buy even though I wasn’t crazy about three of the songs chosen for single release. There were some very good album tracks. My favorite is “Blank Sheet of Paper” penned by Don Schlitz and the Warren Brothers.

    Comparing Sundown Heaven Town to LLYWD is high praise so I’ll have to give it at least a few listens – except for “Lookin’ for That Girl”. If I wind up buying just a few individual tracks, that surely won’t be one of them.

  2. I’ve been loving this album so far, even if the production is a bit thick in places.

    “Lookin’ For That Girl” is definitely the exception, not the rule, as no song comes even remotely close to matching the awfulness of that embarrassment.

    My favorite is probably “Still On the Line”. The production is a tad thick but the heartfelt vocal, killer melody and excellent lyric are more than enough to make up for that.

    “Shotgun Rider”, “City Lights”, “Overrated” and “Sick of Me” are all vintage Tim McGraw, and are all well above average to outstanding tracks. Even the weaker tracks like “Dust” and “Keep On Truckin'” are still enjoyable.

    I’d give it 4.5 stars out of 5.

    Top Tracks: “Still on the Line”, “Kids Today”, “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” (feat. Faith Hill), “Overrated”, “The View”, “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools” (feat. Catherine Dunn)

  3. While this is only somewhat relevant to this album review specifically, I feel the need to write about a general thing that bugs me. Just because something is “not country” doesn’t mean it’s pop, rock, or whatever. Songs that people here describe as “rock” or “pop” would NOT get played on current Top 40 or Modern Rock radio.

    Like it or not, the sound of modern country music has changed. That sound may be akin to, say, ’80s rock, but it’s what the current target demos for labels think of as “country.” No one is confusing the “rock” songs of Florida Georgia Line or Jason Aldean with The Black Keys or Fall Out Boy. At the same time, no one is confusing the “pop” that Carrie Underwood and Lady Antebellum make with a Rihanna or Katy Perry song. It’s somewhat ignorant to just describe something that doesn’t fit a specific definition of “country” as being “rock” or “pop.”

    My point is separate from whether or not it’s a good thing; I, too, miss banjos, fiddles, etc. in country music. But it’s pass time to dismiss something as “not country” because it lacks those elements. The definition of “country” has changed for modern audiences.

  4. Country is not a subjective definition in my opinion. If it were then Marlyn Manson and TuPac Shakur could be considered country because I say so. What is country, anything I want it to be?

    This album, while significantly better than anything Tim McGraw has done since the release of “Live Like You Were Dying”, is not a country album. It does not have country melodies (with exceptions of Meanwhile Back at Mama’s and Shotgun Rider) nor does it make use of country instrumentation like fiddles, steel guitar, mandolin, dobro, etc.. I for one think we should start every blog post/review/column off about country songs and albums that are marketed as country but aren’t really country. We need to be bringing that to light as a constant reminder of what is and isn’t country. If fans of real country music are ever going to save the genre from collapse and complete loss of its roots then we have to be able to identify what is and isn’t country. We need to correctly rate the countriness of a song or album. Tim McGraw’s album here, while a decent effort, with some good songs, just it isn’t a country album on the whole. It doesn’t mean it is bad, it just isn’t country.

    If you want a good, modern country music album by a modern artist, then checkout someone like Jason Eady who released “AM Country Heaven” and “Daylight & Dark”. Those are examples of modern projects that are both new and country at the same time. There are countless others out there today too, Tim McGraw’s just isn’t one of them.

  5. Motown Mike, to what end, though? What gets played on country radio today may not be “country” in a strict sense, but it’s what people think of as country. People have been harping on the (’80s) rock influence in country music for years now, but nothing has changed. People were harping on the pop/AC influence in country back in the late ’90s, and it’s not like country went overly traditional after that. Trends come and go, and music is cyclical. Country music will change again (and probably soon), but who knows in what way? I just know griping about it has rarely made a difference.

  6. Music does (and should) evolve. To that end, any genre will incorporate new elements, which is usually going to mean incorporating elements of other genres (short of completely new technology/instruments). Otherwise country music would still be people singing the same songs with the same instruments and the same arrangements. Then the criticism would be stagnation. That isn’t to say all trends/changes are positive, but it is to say those things are natural. And like I said before, “country music” will change again.

  7. There is a difference between evolution and throwing away your entire identity. What country music has done today is not evolution. Rather, it is an abandonment of every single element that used to make it up. Evolution is an orderly progression, built off of the foundation of something that came before it. It is not a complete disassociation, nor is it something born out of the roots of something else. Country music today traces its roots back to 80’s arena-rock and pop acts like Bon-Jovi, Ratt, Cinderella and Janet Jackson more than it does country acts of the past like Merle Haggard, George Strait or Loretta Lynn. When you can’t trace your roots back to what you claim them to be, that isn’t evolution. Just as a modern day Grey Wolf can’t trace its species back to that of a Dung Beetle, today’s so-called country acts cannot trace their roots back to country music’s past

    Furthermore, it wasn’t done in the name of evolving or incorporating new elements into the genre either. It was a mid-life crisis mandated by executives whose sole interest was making more money. These executives found a flock of sheep who would follow any shepherd with good looks and a catchy beat. They have exploited their flock and will move on once the money well has dried up.

    Tim McGraw, his records of the past eight or so years and his overly emasculated, worked-out body, have been apart of this trend. Songs like “Lookin’ For That Girl” and “Truck Yeah” don’t have any ties back to records McGraw recorded earlier in his career like “Everywhere” and “Please Remember Me”, other than that they were all sung by the same individual. This present album is not much different than his past couple. There isn’t but a country song or two on the album, even though it is marketed as such. It is everything he has recorded in the prior three albums with a splash of substance thrown in. Why substance, because the flock has moved towards it ever so slightly over the portion of 2014.

    If you want an example of evolution, take a look at the career of EmmyLou Harris. Albums from earlier in her career like “Rose of Cimmaron” or “Quarter Moon In a Ten Cent Town” were decidedly more country in sound and style than those from later in her career like “Stumble Into Grace” or “Wrecking Ball”. Yet, those that evolved in the latter stage of her career were not marketed as country because the artist, EmmyLou and her team of people, knew they weren’t. They were able to be forthright and truthful in what those albums were. Even with an evolution in her career, the general conclusion made is that the quality of artistry in her work didn’t decline and got better and better. If we are allowed to have general, objective (not subjective) opinions on Tim McGraw, the general consensus is that not only did his latter work abandon a country sound, it also left a lot to be desired in terms of the quality of records recorded.

    If all we have is a subjective definition of the terms “country”, “quality” and “evolution” then can’t we consider anything we want country music and good music? Why stop at acts like Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, FGL and Jerrod Niemann? Why not include Manson and Shakur if a country music is just whatever a listener conceptualizes it to be? Why have standards of quality, why not just let every song win “song of the year” or every album win top prize too? “She’s Country”, “Donkey”, “That’s My Kind of Night” should all win awards since it is all subjective anyways. What’s the point of boundaries, genres and standards if all we are going to do is form artists and listeners into groups based around money? Label nothing and just make money is the new modus operandi I guess.

  8. I’m somewhere in between here.

    On one hand, I’m with Jason, in that, for example FGL, would sound out of place on pop radio.

    On the other hand, recent singles from the likes of Neimann, Aldean and Sam Hunt bare NO resemblance to even modern day country. I could market a banana as a vacuum cleaner, doesn’t make it one.

    As for the album, I’d say the majority of the songs here are definitely country influences, and it we’re going to criticize a record for not being country, this most certainly is not the one.

  9. Leeann,

    You are right about “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools”, that was an omission on my part. However, I don’t think I’d consider “City Lights” much of a country song. I suppose in comparison to the majority of the album it holds up as country.

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