"Optimism" is the word Tim McGraw uses to describe his new album 'Two Lanes of Freedom,' and despite a garnish of somber ballads and hopeless love stories, the singer is dead on. The project's production creates the buoyant mood that carries each of the 15 songs on the accelerated deluxe version. In fact, one's opinion of 'Two Lanes of Freedom' may rest on production decisions made by McGraw and Byron Gallimore.

There is more than one great song on McGraw's 12th studio album, his first with Big Machine Records. The title track rides along a funky groove that shuffles like tires over cracks on the highway. It's a great open-road song that, if released as a single, will sound perfect on the radio when the early April sun melts the frost off the ground, allowing us to roll down the windows.

McGraw's collaboration with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban is also a highlight, one with award show potential. Swift begins the chorus singing "I can't live without you / I can't live without you baby" before the man who inspired her first hit provides his strongest vocal moment on the album. 'Highway Don't Care' is the signature song from 'Two Lanes of Freedom.' It's a hit even before Urban adds his guitar licks late.

'Nashville Without You' is another genuinely beautiful moment. Kyle Jacobs and his songwriting partners capture the essence of Music City and its history in this wonderful portrait, sung without a sniff of pretension.

It's a small step down to 'Southern Girl,' only because of the auto-tune-like nature of vocals that follow each chorus. They're not necessary and only take away from the playfulness of the mid-tempo cut. The bass riff that stands up around the 2:45 mark helps one forget about this misstep, however.

Moments on McGraw's 'Two Lanes of Freedom' that are meant to pack the biggest punch don't quite make the intended impression. Soaring ballads like 'Annie I Owe You a Dance' fall flat, and powerful story songs like 'Book of John' and 'Number 37405' aren't told with the same efficiency as many of McGraw's biggest story-based hits. Both have tear-jerking potential, but unless a listener is living through the loss of a father or missing their imprisoned family member, the waterworks remain dammed.

'Mexicoma' is the only fast-forward cut, but the accordion-laced tune is a harmless segue. The addition of a live version of 'Truck Yeah' is a curious choice, but the more you listen to it in context, the more it falls into the category of songs you're embarrassed to admit you love. Sure, it's sort of obnoxious, but the energy of the live version justifies its inclusion on 'Two Lanes of Freedom,' McGraw's finest album since 'Let It Go.'

4 Stars

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