Tim McGraw ‘Two Lanes of Freedom' (Big Machine Records)
After his protracted legal battle with longtime label Curb Records, it's no wonder country music superstar Tim McGraw sounds so revved up on “Two Lanes of Freedom,” his debut album on Big Machine Records.
McGraw has shown a penchant for mixing musical styles before — he has collaborated with Nelly, Ne-Yo and Def Leppard, after all — and he has rocked this hard on past albums, most recently on his 2012 Curb release “Emotional Traffic.”
But “Two Lanes of Freedom,” the three-time Grammy winner's 14th No. 1 debut on the Billboard Country Albums chart, has an undeniably refreshed and relaxed vibe even as it harks back to sonic themes the music veteran has explored at earlier junctures in his 20-year career.
The title track, a romantic road song that opens the album, sets a free-spirited tone that only gets more dreamily buoyant with his latest top 10 hit, “One of Those Nights.” The Louisiana native upholds his reputation as a smooth country balladeer with “Friend of a Friend,” about a lost love that refuses to fade away; “Book of John,” a heartfelt memoriam to a lost patriarch; and “Number 37405,” an earnest story song about a drunken driver paying for his past sins.
With the tuneful tribute “Nashville Without You,” he sincerely tips his trademark black hat to some of the classic country songs that built Music City; unfortunately, Brad Paisley dropped a couple of the same great old titles in his 2010 hit “This Is Country Music,” which gives McGraw's homage a bit of a been-there-done-that quality.
The spry two-stepper “Mexicoma” mixes a barroom piano with a norteno accordion. For the album's potent closer “Highway Don't Care,” McGraw mingles voices with his new labelmate Taylor Swift — whose breakout hit was the brokenhearted ballad “Tim McGraw” — and adds Keith Urban's fiery electric guitar for good measure.
McGraw's road to emancipation has some bumps in it, including the pandering top 15 leadoff single “Truck Yeah,” with its idiotic wordplay and trendy hip-hop and rock influences, and “Southern Girl,” a similarly stylish ode to country ladies with an Auto-Tune-adorned chorus.
But the singer certainly sounds better free in the Big Machine than stuck at the Curb.
— Brandy McDonnell