‘Here on Earth’ Finds Tim McGraw at His Most Expansive and Elemental
Country giant Tim McGraw is still at it, over a quarter century after his 1993 self-titled debut. Boasting a staggering 10 number one albums and 25 number one singles on country charts, he is about as definitive of a voice in the genre as there comes. His last record was 2017’s “The Rest of Our Life” with his wife Faith Hill, another figure of country royalty. For his latest release, “Here on Earth,” McGraw teamed up with longtime producer Byron Gallimore, and went the traditional analog route, recording tracks on two-inch tape. Simultaneously, he went way out and wild experimenting with effects, incorporating a diverse set of influences, and ultimately turning out an album of peerless ambition. Its title effectively captures its scope and posturing, as it offers a set of humble country songs with an unprecedented ambition of scale, both lyrically and musically.
Opener “L.A.” begins with cinematic strings that instantly create a starry feeling, setting the stage for the giddy reflections that make up the song. Granted, there are countless towns that would seem more in place on a country album than “L.A.” It all makes sense in due time, however, as McGraw sings sonorously about “getting used to the faster pace,” building up to the climactic lines, “’Cause the thing that I love most about LA / Is you.” Next, he blasts off with the pricelessly titled “Chevy Spaceship,” upon which the album’s cover art, essentially McGraw in space, begins to make sense. There are nods to Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” with that song’s title even making its way into the lyrics. There’s a majestic, space rock guitar solo, along with astronaut radio announcers, and all the works. McGraw manages to turn this all into something undeniably country, with his twangy guitar bends taking the shape of orbital trajectories.
Meanwhile, “here on earth,” McGraw is equally dreamy. On the title track, he modifies the key lines of “L.A.” to accommodate the whole planet, remarking, “Yeah, lovin’ you’s why / I’m here on Earth.” The eclectic influences keep making their way in, with McGraw taking a page from U2, particularly the Edge’s guitar playing, and doing the sound more than justice, as he marvels about life and love. “Damn Sure Do” conforms to a more familiar shape, relatively stripped-down, exceptionally twangy, and guided by light strings. Yet, it still retains the galactic designs that have seeped into every track yet, in its gliding guitar lines and lyrics that continue the sentiments of the previous song.
“Hallelujahville” puts a novel spin on the ubiquitous hometown homage, as McGraw insists, “Don’t call us small town.” There’s an abundance of expressive pedal steel, and when he posits, “Can I get an ‘Amen,’ for livin’ in, Hallelujahville?” the music breaks into a grand, cascading display, with fleeting gospel interjections making their way in. McGraw is indeed still celebrating small towns, but extending the focus beyond individual towns, to a universal concept. Small town culture continues to inform the next song, a lighthearted number in which McGraw admits to “cheap beer” and “trucks that don’t start,” but maintains “Good Taste In Women.”
McGraw returns invariably to the same smitten and reflective sensibility. “Hard to Stay Mad At” is a jaunty, straightforward number that subtly incorporates some of the ethereal aspects heard in the title track, alongside plenty of meaty guitar licks. He never seems to run out of original ways to express infatuation, and a standout example follows in “Sheryl Crow,” with a refrain of “You’re like the first time I heard / Sheryl Crow on the radio.” Crow heard the song and sent McGraw a note of appreciation, her stamp of approval further validating an already undeniably catchy song. There’s a general reprise of the opening track on “Not From California,” on which McGraw reflects, “I’m not from California / But tonight I wish I was” over a chord progression and arrangement that taps into an age-old, unspoken spirit. The pace picks up on “Hold You Tonight,” continuing where “Hard to Stay Mad At You” left off, with McGraw offering consolation with a joyful revelry, atop guitars that get the point across.
A sure highlight comes in the particularly camp “7500 OBO.” The title expands to “$7500 or best offer,” as McGraw attempts to sell his Ford F150, to free himself of all the memories attached to it from a past relationship. The songwriters seem to have had a bit of fun pitching this one to McGraw, with meta lyrics like “Just drivin’ around with no place to go, ah / Singin’ along to ‘Where the Green Grass Grows,’” and fiddle parts that nod to McGraw’s 1997 song of that name. The sequencing of tracks can add a narrative element to the album, as “7500 OBO” segues into “If I Was a Cowboy.” Whether or not the speaker has managed to sell his truck, he’s clearly still suffering from the burden of romantic memories, as he reckons, “If I was a cowboy / I’d be over you by now.” There is, of course, a bit of irony to these lyrics, as McGraw is pretty damn close to a cowboy after all.
The inevitable family values nod comes on “I Called Mama,” on which McGraw hears news about a friend’s demise, and is reduced to a state of childlike helplessness, whereupon he reaches out to his mother. The sappiness could easily be cringey in another voice, but McGraw pulls it off, with the stage already set from the sentiments of “If I Was a Cowboy.” All this vulnerability yields long reflection and ultimately enlightenment on “Gravy,” in which McGraw considers, “If my window to the world is the evening news / Only song I’ll sing is gonna be the blues,” an observation that is hard to argue with. He concludes, “Maybe happiness is a choice you choose / Startin’ to get it now,” rounding things off in proper country style when he adds, “Everything else is gravy.”
Having gone to space and back in just the first few tracks, and proceeded with such a classic and colorful set of tracks, McGraw makes his passion for his craft quite clear, so it’s believable when he declares his passion for music on “War of Art,” claiming, “I don’t do it for the money / I don’t do it for the fame.” At this point, a closer titled “Doggone” would already make sense, looking back at all the ground surveyed. But McGraw surprises us with perhaps the sweetest song of the whole set, as the title actually means “Dog gone,” with McGraw singing, “And I’ll miss you ‘ol buddy ’til then / Doggone, man’s best friend.”
“Here on Earth” is an album that lives up to its title, with McGraw freely drawing from the vast array of experiences that shape and define life on the third rock from the sun. Endeavoring to capture all the richness of life on the planet would normally be the type of ambition to guarantee ridicule, but McGraw goes about it with a disarming modesty that makes it work, and turns out songs with a seasoned mastery that makes them stand on their own. There’s a winsome tongue-in-cheek quality to songs like “Chevy Spaceship” and “If I Was a Cowboy.” There’s refreshing novelty in McGraw’s endlessly creative ways of expressing his love for his woman, as on “Sheryl Crow” and “7500 OBO.” There’s a global accessibility, tying together songs like “Not From California” and “Hallelujahville.” Altogether, McGraw’s new album covers all the bases, and tackles exciting new ground, in a work of charming sincerity and comprehensive proportions.
“Here on Earth” releases Aug. 21 on Apple Music.