on 5 March 2007
If someone had told me a year ago that in 2007 I'd be listening to a CD of 'country' music, I'd have said it was about as likely as developing a taste for the works of John Cage or the plays of Harold Pinter. Yet, here I am, about to write a rave review of a Tim McGraw album. I had no idea who he was until I stumbled upon his Greatest Hits II CD, purely by chance. Having listened to it obsessively, I decided to track down his other recordings. 'Set This Circus Down' is quite simply, a magnificent collection of songs, expertly delivered, by someone clearly at the peak of his vocal powers. Blessed with perfect diction, you can actually hear every word, of every song. This is extremely rare. Most pop, rock, country, stars could be singing selections from the Yellow Pages, for all the sense one can make of their incessant vocal acrobatics. Of course, in some cases, the lyrics are so bad, this may be intentional. Not on this CD. The lyrics clearly mean something, which is which is why Tim McGraw has actually taken the trouble to make sure we can hear them. Mr McGraw may not be a songwriter (or at least, not on this CD) but he clearly has an innate ability to recognise a good song when he hears one and has drawn on some of the best writers in the business for this album.
So what are the highlights? The whole thing kicks off with what sounds like an absolute classic to me - 'The Cowboy in Me' by Craig Wiseman, Jeffrey Steele and Al Anderson. Great tune, great lyrics - 'I got a life that most would love to have but sometimes I still wake up fightin' mad'. Marvellous stuff - you'll find yourself humming this when you least expect it. This is followed by 'Telluride' by Troy Verges and Brett James. This is perfect for playing very loudly as you bomb round the M25. You won't be able to resist joining in with the chorus, which is about as catchy as they come. I have to sing it an octave lower, but Mr McGraw is clearly the 'King of the High Cs' and can hit all the high notes, with apparent ease. 'You Get Used to Somebody' by Tom Shapiro and Steve Bogard is another great song - 'in the middle of the night without a warning I thought I heard you ...' (I worry for a moment that he's about to sing 'snoring', but mercifully, it turns out to be 'breathing'). This is followed by 'Unbroken' by Holly Lamar and Annie Roboff. Wow! If you don't want to belt this one out at high volume, there's something wrong with you. It's got a real caffeine kick to it, with some lyrics which are just the decent side of suggestive - 'I thank God for every day I wake up to the soft touch of your magic hands'. Enough said.
'Things Change' appears to have been written by a committee (Aimee Mayo, Bill Luther, Chris Lindsey and Mary Green). Usually, I'm put off by anything which seems to have been written by a collective, but here, the exception proves the rule. This is a great song about the way in which those who fly in the face of convention eventually come to be accepted as part of the mainstream: 'Well they like to call them hippies, outlaws with guitars ... but somewhere somebody's playing their songs tonight'. This is followed by 'Angel Boy', a breathtakingly brilliant number about transgression and redemption featuring some seriously nifty guitar playing. Is the writer, Danny Orton, a Catholic, I ask myself? Here, lyrics which actually mean something are coupled with yet another unbelievably catchy chorus. 'I've held the hand of the devil, felt his breath on my skin. Dip me into the water, wash me again'. Great stuff, best played loud.
Two more top-notch numbers follow: 'Forget About Us' by Mark Collie and 'Take Me Away From Here' by Steve Bogard and Jeff Stevens (parts of which will keep popping into your head when you least expect it) before we're back to the committee again, with 'Smilin'. I've got to hand it to the four of them, they've done it again with this one. If you're someone who likes to do their own thing, you'll identify with the sentiments of this song: ' Guru man on my TV set, selling the secrets to happiness ... Dreams I've got my own, I ain't looking for a yellow brick road'. Ridiculously hummable as well as being uplifting. Next up is the title track - 'Set This Circus Down', by Bill Luther and Josh Kear. Apologies to the writers, but this just didn't grab me as much as some of the other songs on the album. Neither did 'Angry all the Time' by Bruce Robison. This probably means it was a huge hit.
After this, the committee makes a triumphant return with the gloriously erotic 'Let Me Love You' (have a cold glass of water to hand when you listen to this one). Now, this does sound like a sure-fire hit to me and with lyrics like 'Let me show you what it's like to lose control, free the desire in your soul' I don't see how it could miss. I imagine it might actually be dangerous to sing this one live - things could get out of control.
'Grown Men Don't Cry' (Steve Seskin, Tom Douglas) was the only track I just couldn't bring myself to like. Sorry guys, but the lyrics were of the distinctly cheesy variety which I'd normally associate with country music. Too mawkish for me, but mercifully Tim McGraw resists the temptation to ham the whole thing up - in fact he's a model of restraint. The last track 'Why we Said Goodbye' (Billy Kirsch, Tom Douglas) fell into the same category as 'Set This Circus Down' for me; i.e., there was nothing wrong with it, it was very pleasant, but somehow it didn't seem to pack the same punch as some of the other tracks.
All in all, this is just a terrific album, with a superb selection of songs. Once played, you'll definitely be hooked.