Tim McGraw started having hits with his second album in 1994, but he didn’t really get interesting until he ditched the hokiness of songs like  “Indian Outlaw” and  the treacly “Don’t Take The Girl” and started addressing life’s larger themes on 1999’s “A Place In The Sun.”

With songs like the yearning “Please Remember Me” and the wistful “My Next Thirty Years,”  he started getting stronger material. By the time 2001’s “Set This Circus Down” came out, with such tracks as  “Angry All The Time,” and the next album’s “Red Ragtop,”  he had completely re-energized his career and given it a gravitas it has been missing.

On “Two Lanes of Freedom,” out today,  the lite McGraw is largely in charge. On songs like last summer’s throwaway “Truck Yeah” and the infinitely better and bouncier “Mexicoma,” the only goal is  good time, whether it’s in an effort to escape a past love or just get some mud on the flaps.

Maybe he’s feeling lighter because he’s finally been unshackled from his onerous contract with Curb Records and is now on Big Machine.
 
To be sure, there are hints of deeper meaning, such as on the poignant “The Book of John.” The cleverly-titled song details going through a father/husband’s photo albums and effects following his death as they head to his funeral. “It’s almost like he’s not really gone/and I know one day I’ll be passing on,” McGraw sings. As he’s moved into middle age, McGraw does death well.

Without McGraw’s own backstory, a song like “Number 37405” would just be another singer-turned-convict tale, but the story of the entertainer who goes to jail for killing someone while driving drunk has an added weight given that McGraw gave up drinking more than five years ago after he found it had too strong a hold on him.

The album, which is sure to be his 12th album to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart, begins and ends with the open road and the word “shotgun” here is reserved solely for the passenger front seat.  On album opener “Two Lanes of Freedom,” a sense of wide open spaces is bolstered by the big backing vocals, redolent of fun.’s “Some Nights.” Closing tune, midtempo “Highway Don’t Care” is a sure future No. 1 as McGraw duets with Taylor Swift, who sounds sweet and all grown up here,  on the tale of a man who just wants his lover to stay closer to home no matter how much the road calls. Keith Urban turns some tasty guitar work on the tune. Unlike some superstar projects (like McGraw’s duet with Kenny Chesney, “Rock Star), this combined effort seems more organic than an idea conceived in the VP of marketing’s office.

With McGraw feeling like he’s back in the driver’s seat, good things are sure to come. “Two Lanes” is a strong start, but it feels like only the tip of the iceberg, especially when fans know McGraw is capable of so much more range.