Review: Tim McGraw's ‘Emotional Traffic’ Is Serious and Silly

The uneven album, once the center of legal battle between the singer and his label Curb Records, hints at greatness and settles for affability

Tim McGraw’s “Emotional Traffic” arrives in stores as the most litigated album in recent musical/legal history. Imagine the missed opportunities for ad campaigns: Direct from the Tennessee court system to your sound system!

The real ad line is a laudatory quote found on a giant sticker on the CD shrink wrap: “'My Best Album Ever' — Tim McGraw.” That opinion contrasts with the legal position taken by Curb Records, which contended in court last year that this recording, which was meant to wrap up his deal with the label, was substandard or already dated (since he turned it in back in 2010) and he should be held to the company for further recordings.

Now that a judge has declared the star a free agent, compelling Curb to finally release "Emotional Traffic," the label would much rather that you believed McGraw's cover blurb than their own court briefs, of course.

Here’s another judicial verdict: Neither is right. Probably even McGraw doesn't really believe this is his finest effort. But neither is the album the sonically antiquated throwback that Curb’s lawyers risibly contended with their legal Hail Mary. Rather, it's another solid B+ effort in a career that’s been full of them — hinting at greatness when McGraw is trafficking in thematically complex balladry, settling for affability when those orange cones inevitably steer him toward good-timey rockers and humanist affirmation anthems.

No star in contemporary country has been quite so good or brave about picking songs that get at the real stresses of middle age ennui and the bitterness that can creep into long-term relationships, a la “Angry All the Time.” The new release is book-ended by a pair of terrific tunes in that tradition, and they’re strong enough that you can forgive some of the ephemera that passes in-between.

The opening “Halo,” in particular, sets a standard the rest of the album is often hard-pressed to meet. “I’ll clean up the mess, baby, you stand there and shout,” McGraw sings, playing the quieter partner in a combative relationship. “I’ll take it like a circus lion, silent in my cage… I’ll crawl out of my cradle down into my black hole, and you’ll just lay low under your halo.” Ouch! A hazy lap-steel guitar and hard-rock solo guitar do a pas de deux in the atmospheric fadeout, dancing around one another a little less passive-aggressively than the couple in the lyrics.

After that downbeat an opening, it’s no surprise that the album quickly takes a turn for the giddy with “Right Back Atcha Babe,” which goes so far in reaffirming romanticism that McGraw promises “that ring you been waiting for all these years.” It’s so over-the-top in its goofy sweetness that the best way to get through the song is by thinking of it as an ironic prequel about the doomed couple in the tune that came before.

That’s not to say that McGraw’s upbeat material always lacks the flair of his more somber fare. “Felt Good On My Lips” (which was released a year and a half ago, and became a No. 1 hit) adds nearly novelistic detail to the thin story of a dance-floor flirtation and corner-booth makeout session. The indie-rock guitar riff that opens the tune hardly hints at the Bon Jovi-esque lengths the chorus will eventually go to, and somehow McGraw ties the melody's wildly divergent strands together with the kind of cheerful eroticism you can only find in country.

Faith Hill’s lips make a guest appearance on a spirited remake of Dee Irvin’s R&B chestnut “One Part, Two Part” (an idea the McGraw-Hills probably picked up from Buddy and Julie Miller’s similar cover a few years ago). Less successfully, R&B star Ne-Yo shows up to duet on the artificially sweetened “Only Human,” a failed attempt at recreating the cross-genre chemistry McGraw had with Nelly back on 2004’s “Over and Over.”

A further inspirational trifecta takes hold with “I Will Not Fall Down,” a Martina McBride-co-written self-help anthem full of generic bootstrap-tugging; “Better Than I Used to Be,” the half-repentant current single; and “Touchstone Jesus,” which may or may not leave the Almighty happy about being likened to a football champion.

After the album's veered into all those happy-go-lucky bromides, it's a relief to find it closing just as it opened — on a downer. “Die By My Own Hand” isn’t quite as grim as it sounds; suicide is only employed as a metaphor. But the Halfway to Hazard cover ends the album on a fatalistic note that fits in perfectly with the sad-sack side of traditional country, even as the arena-rock atmospherics ramp the recording up into near-Coldplay territory.

McGraw has indicated that he’ll be putting out another album this year, on a new label, now that he’s able to set his own timetable. It’d be nice if he used the transition as an occasion to record an entire album of material as weighty and strong as “Halo” and “Die By My Own Hand.”

But you know what? Even a lot of the more lightweight fare feels good from his lips.