Artist: Tim McGraw

Title: Emotional Traffic

Label: Curb Records

People don't want to hear about artist-record company tension, but the rocky road that led to Emotional Traffic just can't be ignored. Country superstar Tim McGraw first handed the project to Curb in 2010, but the label rejected it—a bold move presumed to prevent him from signing a deal with someone else. (His contract was due to expire after this set).

McGraw won the legal battle that ensued. He's already talking about his next project, and is not actively promoting this rush release that Curb originally deemed inferior. What a mess, and what a shame, because Emotional Traffic is full of widely appealing music, great cuts likely to have been even better if everyone involved were happy along the way.

Nevertheless, a lot of these tunes sound just plain fun. "Right Back Atcha Babe" is pure ‘70s soft pop gold. "One Part" (a spark plug duet with Tim's wife Faith Hill), "The One," and "Hey Now" have a classic soul kick, comparable to Bonnie Raitt or Van Morrison.

It isn't until track six, "Better than I Used to Be," that Emotional Traffic feels like a true country album with the tell-tale mix of vocal twang, mournful steel guitar, and a heart-tugging lyrical twist. That vibe continues on the better-than-it's-title-might-suggest "Touchdown Jesus," an overtly religious anthem that matches McGraw's The Blind Side success and is ripe for complementing a video montage of Tim Tebow mania.

The rest of the record might just be an emotional traffic jam of genres—a sign of creative restlessness that could turn into something remarkable down the road if artistic freedom is all it's cracked up to be.

Tim had a hit with rapper Nelly in 2004 ("Over and Over") and adds a smoother R&B element here on a duet with Ne-Yo called "Only Human." Sweetened vocals, modulating chorus, lines like I am fool enough to believe there's hope among the ruin . . . it really isn't too far removed from "I Believe I Can Fly."

"Felt Good on My Lips"—another song of contention that Curb previously released on a McGraw hit collection without his permission amidst the courtroom battle—feels like Death Cab for Cutie backing Jimmy Buffett, full of strange possibilities.

Despite all the drama, Emotional Traffic simply must be heard by Tim McGraw fans. It's good work that in time may emerge as an important crossroads in his significant career.

*This article first published Feb. 1, 2012

**Listen to this album on Spotify