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In recent interviews, Tim McGraw has repeatedly said that he feels like he’s achieved only about 30% of his potential in his music career.
With Jan. 24's “Emotional Traffic,” his last studio album for Curb, he moves that needle slightly forward. Though he doesn’t achieve any major breakthroughs, he hits most of the musical and lyrical notes that have helped make him a country superstar for nearly two decades.
On album opener, the midtempo “Halo,” McGraw is weathering, none to well, the fall out of an ended love affair, as he sings, with barely concealed contempt: “I’ll crawl out of my cradle, down into my black hole and you just lay low under your halo.”
It's a great opening shot that shows off McGraw’s voice, which has always been full of rough edges and nuance, despite its limited range. Somewhere around 2001’s “Set This Circus Down,” he harnessed its strength and power and figured out what songs work best for it, not only musically, but thematically.
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While McGraw can sing little ditties about loving it and liking it with his eyes closed (and for fans of those songs, they’re represented here on such fun, flirty tracks as “Right Back Atcha Babe” and former No. 1 “Felt Good On My Lips”), those disposable good-time numbers are best saved for his live show—although, admittedly, the time spent listening to them never fails to bring a smile.
Where McGraw excels is when he taps into his and life’s darker side. Think about past hits like “Red Rag Top,” “Cowboy In Me,” and “Angry All The Time,” where he’s able to summon up some emotion or past regret that still dogs him. There are a few here on “Emotional Traffic,” including current single, “Better Than I Used To Be,” which looks at the positive side of aging even though McGraw knows he has a few more “dances with the devil” left in him But the superior track is the closing tune, “Die By My Own Hand,” in which he’s back to self-flagellation. To be sure, an album full of such tunes may get a bit monotonous, but it is truly McGraw’s sweet spot: when redemption remains just out of reach.
McGraw’s other strong suit is the sexy swagger exhibited best on tunes like “Real Good Man.” There’s nothing on here that matches that, but the listener gets plenty of McGraw’s ad libs and sexy asides, especially on the swampy, organ-drenched “One.” When he says "Give me some of that cotton candy," you know that's not the only sugar he's talking about.
Over the course of his career, McGraw has, commendably, never tried to chase youth and has instead looked getting older square in the eye. Part of the album’s pleasure comes from listening to someone who embraces his weaknesses rather than still pretending to be Superman, whether it be looking back on a lost love on a sassy remake of Dee Ervin’s “One Part, Two Part” with wife Faith Hill or on “Only Human,” a slightly syrupy duet with super-sweet voiced Ne-Yo.
McGraw, who is touring with Kenny Chesney this summer on a stadium outing, co-produced the album with longtime collaborator Byron Gallimore. While it occasionally sounds dated, for the most part, the album strikes the perfect balance of McGraw’s country, rock and R&B sides.