Emotional Traffic

Tim McGraw

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Emotional Traffic Review

by Thom Jurek

After nearly two years in the vault, Tim McGraw’s Emotional Traffic was released by Curb. McGraw finished it in 2010 and turned it in. Curb refused to release it, claiming it was too soon after 2009’s Southern Voice (though they released another hits compilation the same year). The two parties went to court to resolve the issue. Co-produced with longtime compadre Byron Gallimore, Emotional Traffic is McGraw’s most ambitious offering to date -- the credits list is enormous and the range of styles on display is wide. That said, its balance is impeccable. While its production style and arrangements stay somewhat inside contemporary country’s strictly defined boundaries -- guaranteeing it radio play -- the set also confidently pushes them to the breaking point, too. Take the album opener -- the midtempo ballad “Halo.” While it opens with a pedal steel whine, the electric guitars and bowed electric cellos sound like they could have come from a Snow Patrol or later Coldplay album, though they have more teeth. The chorus, however, is pure contemporary country, yet despite the production sheen, the track’s emotional depth resonates. McGraw also chose to cover Dee Ervin's “One Part, Two Part,” with wife Faith Hill on backing vocals. Buddy & Julie Miller also covered this tune on Written in Chalk, but McGraw’s version is grittier and more R&B, and evokes a younger, wilder Delbert McCLinton. “Only Human,” a duet with Ne-Yo, is a solid ballad underscored by ringing acoustic and electric guitars, and a hook in the refrain to die for (it’d be great in the redemption scene of a film). “The One” is as funky as CC gets, with its wah-wah guitars, howling B-3, and striding electric piano in the verses. Once more, the chorus brings it back inside the format but the groove remains. “Better Than I Used to Be” is another ballad, told in the time-worn country storytelling tradition. Its melody is standard radio fare, but the grain in McGraw’s voice offers a conviction that carries the tune above the tropes. The lengthy, ambient guitar intro to “Felt Good on My Lips” is sly, since it’s a dancehall bump number; it borrows from Jimmy Buffett’s trademark, Caribbean-flavored singalong style in the middle eights. The metaphoric “Die by My Own Hand,” which closes the set, is a devastating midtempo ballad with big, warm guitars and drums in the verses (so much so they could have been produced by Daniel Lanois). Pedal steel underscores the melody to evoke country before a shattering rock & roll power ballad crescendo carries it out. Emotional Traffic displays McGraw’s growth as a singer and producer, and reveals his longevity at the top of a fickle field. He only records when he has something to say, and he understands the rules well enough to bend and finally break them. In doing so, he expands the narrow framework of his genre and nearly forces it to embrace the whole of popular music.

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