On his final album for Curb Records, 2012’s “Emotional Traffic,” Tim McGraw got adventurous. That experimentation suited a man clearly straining at the confines of contemporary country.
The adventure continues on “Two Lanes of Freedom,” his debut for Big Machine Records (the muscle behind Taylor Swift, who contributes a winsome duet vocal here).
While there is a handful of tracks that will pass airplay muster — the inane but catchy “Truck Yeah,” the breezy Swift- and Keith Urban-assisted “Highway Don’t Care” — it’s more interesting when McGraw goes either a little sideways or steps back into contemplative mode.
Nowhere is the former more true than on “Mexicoma,” which may have a Kenny Chesney-sounding title but is straight-up giddy pop that is a closer cousin to the piano pop of Ben Folds. The title track also has Celtic underpinnings that lend a wide-open-spaces feeling to the familiar tale of open-road joy.
On the reflective end of the spectrum, “Nashville Without You” is a gorgeous ode to what gives Music City its heartbeat: the songs. Without them, McGraw sings, “it’d be just another river town, the streets would have a different sound.”
A few of the other ballads are equally worthy of savoring, including the poignant scrapbook full of memories set to music, “Book of John,” and the musings of a musician whose misspent youth landed him in jail as “Number 37405.”
McGraw is a savvy artist and picker of songs, wisely choosing those that will keep him commercially viable but continuing to stretch his legs. (Out Tuesday)
ESSENTIAL “Nashville Without You”