Summary

After years of the strain of legal battles to get out of his contract with Curb Records, Tim McGraw emerges, relaxed and refreshed with Two Lanes of Freedom, his debut recording for Big Machine, co-produced with longtime collaborator Byron Gallimore. McGraw may be celebrating his independence, but he still understands what he needs to get played on country radio as evidenced by the collision of neo-traditionalist melody and hard rock guitars on the pre-release single "Truck Yeah (there are two versions on this set; one is live). His finger popping meld of pop, Southern soul, and contemporary pop on "Southern Girl" uses Auto-Tune in the chorus, and it actually works (why this wasn't chosen as a single is a head scratcher). "Highway Don't Care" -- a duet with Taylor Swift (a thank you for namechecking him in her first big hit) with a killer guitar solo from Keith Urban -- borrows some production cues from Swift's playbook to excellent effect. The hook is irresistible and McGraw's vocal, paired with the young singer's, is a perfect match. This track is actually a real clue as to what McGraw's about these days, wanting to be the perfect combination of pop, country, and rock in one persona. "One of These Nights" is classic McGraw, a midtempo paean to his protagonists object of desire. It's a love song in a sense, but to the nostalgia of the future, not a woman. "Mexicoma" is a pre-hangover heartbreak tune combining a country two-step with a norteƱo polka; Mike Rojas' accordion is a nice touch, especially where it meets the distorted slide guitars, upright piano, and horns. "Friend of a Friend" is a "talking to you while you're not here" love song. McGraw's protagonist tenderly offers the lyrics as an incantation, straight into the ear of the absent, longed-for other. The title track is saturated with contemporary country tropes, with enough rock & roll riffing to make it a perfect second single. "It's Your World" is a rock & roll screamer, a guaranteed barroom dancefloor anthem. Despite its wide range of material and experimentation, this is the pop record McGraw has always wanted to make. He packs in a little of everything here, and some of it stumbles: "Annie I Owe You a Dance" has too many strings, and the poignant, "37405," a narrative about a country singer turned convict, could have been leaner. But these are small complaints on a solid and ambitious recording. On Two Lanes of Freedom, McGraw proves he is indeed the artist that Curb never let him be. ~ Thom Jurek