Music review: Tim McGraw’s ‘Emotional Traffic’

January 23, 2012

Garth Brooks did most of the heavy lifting in the early 1990s, melding country music, arena rock and pop in ways that seem obvious now but were revolutionary then. His figurative heirs, Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw, have reaped the rewards, but while Chesney excels at making country songs sound like rock songs, McGraw makes everything he touches sound like it came straight out of Nashville.

His 11th studio album, “Emotional Traffic,” seals his reputation as the Great Homogenizer, able to locate the heartbeat of a country song in places it shouldn’t rightly exist. McGraw has been a genre tourist for years. He’s made forays into folk and even psychedelic rock, once sang a song co-written by the lead singer of Nickelback — Nickelback! — and recorded a 2004 duet with Nelly, “Over and Over,” that was a big hit despite not being very good.

“Emotional Traffic” isn’t McGraw’s finest hour (McGraw, like Madonna and Elvis, is a singles act), but it’s a solid outing from a solid singer in his prime, doing mostly as he pleases. Among the usual honky-tonk tracks and ballads are a handful of more adventurous songs, albeit with their edges sanded down.

Pre-Nelly, McGraw’s collaboration with feathery voiced R&B star Ne-Yo (on the twangy soul ballad “Only Human”) would have been almost unthinkable. Now, it’s just awkward. The tepid soft-pop opener “Halo” sounds like a rip-off of a rip-off of a Coldplay song. The stadium pop anthem “Felt Good on My Lips,” the disc’s most efficient ambassador of the Tim McGraw brand and a massive smash in 2010, is a battering ram of a song, a summer-minded fist-pumper. It’s also insanely good.

“Emotional Traffic” also has more than its share of inspirational tracks (“I Will Not Fall Down,” the pared-down, fine “Better Than I Used to Be”), lust songs (“Right Back Atcha Babe”) and fame-is-hard songs ( “The One That Got Away”), all of them standard-issue ballads or midtempo tracks dispatched by McGraw with no more effort than if he were swatting flies.

His music is elastic enough to swallow entire genres with ease, but the further McGraw strays from his lyrical comfort zone — he favors the compact and the unfrilly — the more ridiculous he sounds. Even he can’t do much with “Die by My Own Hand,” one of his signature thoughtful (read: mopey) ballads, which starts with “Sex and the City, Indian food/Well I never tried ’em, not until you,” and never recovers.

Everything converges nicely in “Touchdown Jesus,” which fills McGraw’s one-song-about-Jesus-per-album mandate (see: “I’m Only Jesus,” “Drugs or Jesus”). It’s allegorical and ponderous, its characters little more than stencils: the sick kid healed, the alcoholic redeemed. Shameless but undeniable, it will surely serve as the background score for a hundred Tim Tebow post-game montages to come.

Recommended Tracks

“Felt Good on My Lips,” “Better Than I Used to Be,” “Touchdown Jesus”

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