Tim McGraw

Let It Go

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Tim McGraw stayed out of recording studios for nearly three years after his smash single and album Live Like You Were Dying. McGraw is a road dog and a husband to Faith Hill. The pair had a child and McGraw comes back to a style of country music he helped form in the early '90s. His backing band, the Dance Hall Doctors, is the E Street Band of country music in the 21st century. McGraw -- who, with help from Byron Gallimore and Darran Smith, produced Let It Go -- is once more willing to push the sonic formulaic envelope with a wonderfully textural array of sounds and the moods they help to underscore. (Think, if you will, Mitch Easter as a country music producer with a big road band to rein in.) In fact, the sound of the record, its varied richness, and its pluralities illustrate that this is an era in countrymusic when creatively almost anything is possible. It still comes down to songs, though, and the 13 here are all winners. The honky tonk songs are more so ("Shotgun Rider," "Whiskey and You"), the pop tunes are more on the rock & roll side of pop ("Last Dollar [Fly Away]"), and the romantic and story-songs ("I'm Workin") are so utterly, unabashedly plainspoken, they hit the listener straight in the gut. But the real shock is the psychedelic country-rock of the title cut, written by William C. Luther, Aimee Mayo, and Tom Douglas. There are multi-layered pedal steels, baroquely jangled electric guitars, and McGraw's singular vocals riding above the wall of multivalent yet melodic noise to offer a message of threadbare hope in the face of adversity. In the grain of his voice, you can hear the determination to talk and walk from the place of redemption rather than the terrain of suffering. He's singing to convince himself as much as he is the listener. "Put Your Lovin' on Me" is another one, but this one is an anthem, albeit one that pleads for relief and sustenance. There is an amazing spirituality at work in the songs that McGraw chooses here. A Hammond B-3, spiky guitars, and booming snares and cymbals play at the distortion point in this tune by Hillary Lindsey and Luke Laird, but no matter how loud and proud the music is, McGraw's insistence on delivering an unfettered, albeit desperately sincere, melody is what makes him stand apart. When he sings "Put your lovin' on me/Take this weight off me/Put your lovin' on me," he's way beyond the ledge of asking, "There's nothing here to catch me now/I'm gonna fall anyway." He has nothing to lose and expresses that. The haunting guitars and mandolin lines that introduce "Between the River and Me" offer a story-song that is tough, overblown, and full of anger, regret, and the voice of a man haunted by his anger. The other great rocker is the obligatory country train song called "Train #10." The sound here evokes the arid desert landscapes, where frontier and train tracks meet one another. It's a leaving song that's offered with a vengeance. And, of course, there is the beautiful love song duet between McGraw and Hill in "I Need You," with its provocative line "I need you/Like a needle needs a vein." Hill answers from the loneliest space in her full-throated alto: "I want to dance to the static of an AM radio/I want to wrap the moon around us/Lay beside you, skin on skin/Make love till the sun comes up/Till the sun goes down again/'Cause I need you." It's the equation of death, addiction, love, and redemption all rolled into a four-minute tune. While this set of songs doesn't have the same unabashed optimism that Live Like You Were Dying does, it is no less so in its own gruff, rock & roll way. That said, this is one of the best interpretations of the country tradition by McGraw yet, and while he no longer has the wild edge of his earlier records, McGraw has something deeper: he can look at the dark side without flinching and bring it up to the light, always looking to find his way home. Let It Go was well worth the wait and McGraw is still at the top of the heap.

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