Tuesday, October 13, 2009

#81. 'Or have we gone to far now? Have we lost our wings?'

Tim McGraw "Angel Boy"

I could take this opportunity to repeat the points I already made about my reservations with country music as it is in the 00s, but I'd rather not repeat myself too much with that. Suffice it to say that like my last inclusion from the yee-frickin'-haw side of things Tim McGraw never seemed to do anything more than live up to the standards of the genre. Not surprising given that he pretty well set those standards with his 1994 breakthrough album Not a Moment Too Soon - which, it must be said, was one of the first cassettes I ever owned - but his complacency was frustrating. Every so often he'd make a true stunner, be it the upbeat "Something Like That" or the wrenching "Can't Really Be Gone," but for the most part he acted as the status quo for modern country's less melodrama-inclined movers and shakers. To put it simply, he was boring nine times out of ten. Rarely deplorable but rarely exceptional either. Tim McGraw, the man who basically wrote the guidelines for modern country males had become the C+ student of the class, and as the 90s wound down it seemed like he was content with that - and really, if you were boffing Faith Hill why wouldn't you be content with mediocrity in other aspects of your career?

That seemed to change at the dawn of the decade though. Sure, his singles were rarely of stellar quality but the ways that he pushed himself outside of the comfort zone of modern country resulted in some of his best material since Not a Moment Too Soon. There was the album he recorded with his touring band - a move that seems entirely logical from my more rockist point of view but is apparently not the way it should work in country music - that was probably his best set of songs overall, his collaboration with Nelly, of all people, that wound up both accentuating the two parties' strengths and gave McGraw his biggest pop hit, and there was "Angel Boy," easily the strongest song he'd released as a single, which was never given to the radio in any official manner. Part of me thinks that the video, a travelogue of Irish countrysides shot with stunning clarity, was an attempt by McGraw to push his record label's hand and give the song a proper release, but from what I can tell it was only ever given to CMT, which makes it enough of a single for this list but not enough to be part of McGraw's official singles chronology, which is hard to abide by when the song is this fucking good.

Now I wouldn't classify myself as a religious person of any stripe - I describe myself as an agnostic fatalist if that topic ever comes up - but I can relate the sort of crisis of faith being described here since it's laid out as religious allegory as opposed to a straight dose of that old time religion. The drive of the song's lyric is much more about the clash of what you've been told to do vs. what actually happens and how that clash can lead to intense feelings of regret than it's heavily religious lyrics would have you believe. It's the sort of thing that the country song factory, for all its faults, does better than any other genre: ensconcing the simplest ideas in the sort of window dressing that seems to push it in line with the whims of the genre's most fervent fanbase. There are plenty of overtly religious singles in country music, more than any other popular genre I'd wager, but the best of them aren't really about religion at all so much as they're universal lyrics that happen to draw on overt religious imagery. Part of "Angel Boy"'s charm is that this aspect of it doesn't come off as distracting or heavy handed, edging more towards colloquial than anything. Songwriter Danny Orton really hit it out of the park with this one, and given that his other major contributions to the modern country landscape were recorded by Rascal Flatts it's easy to say his talent's being squandered at this point.

Aside form the excellent lyrical qualities it has going for it, "Angel Boy" also features one of McGraw's best vocal turns. McGraw's voice has never been among he best, and he's declined to actually use it on half his songs, opting for a speak-sing hybrid more and more often as he gets older, but when he does bring it out it's never unpleasant. The chorus here is a fine example of what sort of vocalizing I wish was more common in country music, it's strong and well arranged in a sea of harmonies - especially appropriate in the last chorus -but devoid of the excessive melodrama and unnecessary shows of range. It's the sort of thing that's necessary for someone like McGraw who's voice is pleasant but not exceptional, and when it's done as well as it is here it's hard to imagine it being done better by anyone with a more classically great voice. The way McGraw's voice so effortlessly soars on the second and third choruses may be a bit cliched but it's not the sort of unnecessary vocal run that's overtaken male country artists as of late, just a simple shift in tone that conveys so much more than the lyrics attached to ti could on their own. It's a great meeting of song and vocalist, the kind that happens far too rarely in the branch of country music where the lyrics come from ringers like Orton instead of the artists themselves.

Coming up tomorrow: Another of my favorite songs gets taken on in a different context.

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