Today’s country music world is saturated with highly successful young artists like Jason Aldean, the boys of Florida Georgia Line, and Luke Bryan. In fact, these artists made the top three of Billboard’s “Hot Country Songs” list this week. But while the more contemporary pop aesthetic of these performers certainly speaks to a new generation of country listeners, Tim McGraw has had serious staying power since his career started early in the 1990s. Although the country scene continues to respect McGraw for his legacy alone, the industry pioneer continues to innovate. With his release of Sundown Heaven Town on Tuesday, McGraw showed he still cares about staying relevant. In recording this new album, McGraw ultimately attempted to produce competitive, marketable songs for the ever-changing country music scene. He changed his sound in a drastic way, and while he succeeds in some songs, Sundown Heaven Town definitely falls flat.
One of McGraw’s most successful early singles of the album is “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s,” one that he sings alongside his wife, Faith Hill. This song is traditional, and it takes the listener right back to McGraw’s classic, older music. It’s not trying to achieve any new audience, and it’s not trying to compete with younger artists. Instead, it’s an example of what McGraw is best at: paying attention to the vocals, lyrics, and acoustic instrumentation, while not needing to make anything too big out of it. This single is quintessential McGraw, and it’s not boring, and it’s not outdated.
The album’s opening track, “Overrated,” is anything but what the name suggests. The acoustic, undeniably country intro to the song is characteristic of McGraw’s canon—and then it seamlessly transitions into a more rhythmic, electrically charged sound for the chorus. There is a switch-off present between the two sounds, but they coexist in a sonically appealing way.
“I’m Feelin’ You” is starting to enter into the area of jazz, and it is certainly the furthest McGraw’s traveled from his familiar territory. There is a unique, rock-inspired sound to the song, and it’s drastically different from everything else on the album. More importantly, it’s drastically different from anything else that other popular country artists are producing.
The album’s strongest track, “City Lights,” blends the easy banjo of an acoustic love song with the intensity of full, electric instrumentation and strong percussion. It’s a great fit for McGraw and shows a broad scope of his artistry. The problem with the album, though, is how infrequent these great songs are.
Sundown Heaven Town is long. With 18 songs packed into the project (and the deluxe version has even more), the odds that McGraw could keep the content consistently impressive were never too good. Frankly, most of the pieces on his album are just average. They’re not hits, they’re not great for radio, and they really just slip through the cracks. “Shotgun Rider,” “Dust,” “Keep on Truckin’,” and “Black Jacket” are just a few of these lackluster songs. They’re good enough, but nothing special.
Nothing special, though, is still better than just plain bad—and plain bad it gets. “Lookin’ For That Girl” is Tim McGraw’s sad attempt to mix hip-hop and country—something that has been executed poorly before and most certainly will be again. With lyrics performed with scared, noncommittal near-rapping, and a horribly tacky hip-hop beat behind the instrumentation, this song is comical in its failures. One would like to think that it was something McGraw was convinced into doing by his mentors or his record label, because there’s just no good reason for any artist to choose to make something like it.
At the end of the day, one word puts Sundown Heaven Town in summary: fine. There are a few truly impressive songs on this album, and at this point, it seems that McGraw should stick to what he knows. The country music scene may be changing, but he doesn’t have to. He’s already made a name for himself—the sun isn’t going down on McGraw anytime soon.
Featured Image Courtesy of Big Machine Records