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Tim McGraw

Set This Circus Down (Curb)

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The centerpiece of Tim McGraw's new album, Set This Circus Down, is "Things Change." Some say it's too rock 'n' roll/But it's just good music if you can feel it in your soul, McGraw argues in retaliation to last year's "Murder on Music Row," the Alan Jackson and George Strait duet that charged the Nashville combine with mowing down the country tradition. It's easy to see how McGraw would've taken that song personally. After all, "drums and rock and roll guitars mixed right up in your face" is a complaint that summarizes to a T McGraw's own noisy oeuvre.

Then again, given McGraw's scant vocal gifts, such a production strategy seems smart, even necessary. Ditto for the way Circus (the nation's best-selling country album for several weeks now) regularly props up his limp twang with plenty of background singers and echo. Surrounding McGraw, every space is filled with sound, and every sound is huge. The tracks can't race to their crescendos fast enough, and just when you think a peak has been scaled, it's jacked to newly preposterous heights by Journey- and Styx-inspired guitar solos -- played eyes-closed, no doubt, for extra intensity.

Many of McGraw's selections attempt to convey big emotions, but they lack the dimension that people who live such emotions actually deserve. On Circus, human beings are reduced to walking clichés who can imagine nothing more than to drown in desire, or live in dreams, or fly free as a bird. The lessons these songs impart (and these songs almost always have lessons to impart) never challenge us to grow when they can flatter us instead. On the opening cut, McGraw confesses he's often filled with "foolish pride," then proves the point with a shrug: I guess that's just the cowboy in me.

Circus is McGraw's bid to be heard as a serious artist, and rarely has music with so little to offer been engorged so completely with the certainty of its own wonderfulness. In "Things Change," McGraw outlines a tradition that runs from Hank Williams to Elvis Presley to ... McGraw. "Forget About Us" is the most blatant imitation of Bruce Springsteen since the Beaver Brown Band. Circus even leaves McGraw's photograph off its cover, an "artistic" choice practically unheard of in image-conscious Nashville.

Inside the disc's twenty-page booklet, though, it's the same old cult of celebrity. Here's "Grammy-winning superstar Tim McGraw" (as he's IDed in his press materials) lying Christlike on desert sands. Here's Grammy-winning superstar Tim McGraw holding the ropes of a tent as if he were Samson about to tear down the temple. In the center spread, McGraw is surrounded by quotes from Confucius, Jung and Thoreau, who all apparently agree with McGraw that things do indeed change. Perhaps these luminaries also would concur that nothing else should matter if you can feel it in your soul, but only after noting the enormous size of that "if."

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