Now that Tim McGraw has finally been freed from his Curb Records contract by a Nashville court, his long-delayed contract-fulfilling album Emotional Traffic has finally seen a release. Unfortunately, it looks like I’ll be putting this album on the same shelf as Own the Night and The Incredible Machine. Though McGraw has touted it as his “best album ever,” I’m going to have to beg to differ. Emotional Traffic easily ranks among McGraw’s weakest career efforts to date.
Each of the album’s first two singles offered a different possible preview of the forthcoming album’s musical direction. “Better Than I Used to Be” suggested a throwback to the classic late nineties-era Tim McGraw sound, while its predecessor “Felt Good On My Lips” (which originally appeared on the 2010 Number One Hits compilation) suggested an album dominated by shouted-out arena rock. Regrettably, the album sticks almost entirely to the former. Emotional Traffic is a bloated moody mess of an album that recalls the overblown, underdeveloped musical styles that acts such as Rascal Flatts and Lady Antebellum have often reveled in, as well as even formerly impressive acts like Sugarland.
I’m not saying that this bad album just because it isn’t “country enough” (which would be kind of a cop-out). The problem is that these eardrum-busting arrangements are in terribly poor service to the songs themselves. The album as a whole disregards the one cardinal rule about great country music: It’s all about the songs. It’s not just about being as loud and noisy as one possibly can. Even when the songs are good, the incessant loudness acts as a sonic barrier between the song and the listener. It’s impossible for a song lyric to connect with you on any significant level if you can scarcely tell what the lyric is even saying. With a sound ruled by screaming electric guitars, Emotional Traffic is at times practically unlistenable, and with McGraw himself having produced the album with Byron Gallimore, a decent portion of that blame rests on his own shoulders.
Such production choices are a disservice not only to the songs, but also to McGraw himself. Though his singing voice lacks the depth and range of contemporaries such Vince Gill and Toby Keith, McGraw’s greatest gift as a vocalist has long been his impeccable strength as a lyrical interpreter. Career gems such as “Everywhere,” “Just to See You Smile,” and “Please Remember Me” provide solid evidence of that fact. When he has to shout to be heard over audacious bass lines and blunt force guitar licks, all the magic is lost. His fine vocal nuances are lost in the shuffle, and his voice becomes but a small component in a constant storm of noise. Because the album puts far too much focus on beating listeners over the head with needless noise, the emotional traffic is drowned out by an excess of instrumental traffic.
The production fails to mask the fact that most of these songs are no great shakes to begin with. Album opener “Halo” flirts with the idea of offering a substantial take on a breakup, but ends up a crude jumble of ill-conceived metaphors. “The One” warns you by its dime-store title hook that it has nothing noteworthy to say, offering only a lazily written list song, while “Touchdown Jesus” only reaffirms the fact that mining the Peach Pickers songwriting catalog rarely yields anything more memorable than the usual radio-pandering formulas. The pseudo-inspirational “I Will Not Fall Down,” co-written by McGraw with Martina McBride and her common writing compadres Brad and Brett Warren, leads us to expect something interesting as it begins by addressing the theme of getting older. Sadly, the song offer no listener payoff beyond the shallow declaration of “I will not fall down without getting up… That’s when I need your love,” while volume of the in-your-face production reaches a nearly intolerable high.
Perhaps what’s most disconcerting is the fact that McGraw’s vocal performances are startlingly inconsistent, with him often tackling melodies that are extremely ill-suited to his vocal range. When he attempts to attack the rocking groove of “The One,” his voice sounds nearly shot. He sings the soaring chorus of “I Will Not Fall Down” with as much force as his thin voice allows him, but the song would have been better left to the big voice of co-writer Martina McBride. Half the time McGraw sounds more like he’s shouting than singing, with the “oh-oh-ohh”s and “whoa-oh-oh”s of “Felt Good On My Lips” serving him no better.
The album contains a few enjoyable moments, but such are sparse. The first, obviously, is the single “Better Than I Used To Be.” Though McGraw’s version of the song doesn’t fare well in comparison to the 2010 Sammy Kershaw version, it sounds pretty dang good when sandwiched between “The One” and “Touchdown Jesus.” The second is “One Part, Two Part” which weighs the emotional pros and cons of being in a relationship with too much taking, and not enough giving. Though the production is somewhat loud, it is comparatively restrained when held up against the songs that surround it. It ultimately stays out of the way of the lyric, such that wife Faith Hill is even able to contribute guest vocals without being drowned out. We can even make out a melody that is somewhat catchy. If we manage to stay with the album until Track 11, we find certain components beginning to fall back into place, as “Only Human” and “Die By My Own Hand” find the songwriting quality improving. Even then, frustratingly, obnoxious, heavy-handed arrangements act as unwelcome interruptions. Beyond a precious few cuts that are worth cherry-picking, there is little to recommend.
I can hardly begin to convey my disappointment. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from Emotional Traffic, but I was expecting a heck of lot better than what I got. By the way, this is not coming from a longtime McGraw detractor – I have long considered myself to be something of a Tim McGraw fan. Why, he and Faith were my first concert. I like Tim McGraw, and I thus approached this album with an open mind, fully ready to be impressed. That didn’t happen. When the album tracklist was revealed, I was initially disappointed that the turgid single “Felt Good On My Lips” was going to be included. But after having heard the rest of the album, I have to say that the real disappointment is not the fact that the song was included, but that it fits so well with the rest of the album. Because the rest of it is just as bad – often worse.
With McGraw’s Curb partnership having come down to this, perhaps his leaving the label will be for the better in more ways than one. Let us hope that McGraw’s post-Curb endeavors find him getting back to the basics of what made him a compelling artist to begin with, and that his future output will offer some musical redemption from this disaster. If it didn’t represent a last-ditch cash grab for Curb Records as they say goodbye to their flagship act, Emotional Traffic would have been better left to collect dust on the Curb shelves next to some underloved Jo Dee Messina album. This is dreadful.
TIM’S SCORE: 3
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)
Download These: “One Part, Two Part,” “Better Than I Used to Be”