Song Review: Tim McGraw, “Neon Church”

If Tim McGraw really needs a “Neon Church,” he should play a song that actually sounds like something you’d hear in one.

For an artist pushing fifty, McGraw’s continued success in the 2010s (twelve Top Tens?) has been nothing short of amazing, although the quality of said hits has been all over the map, ranging from strong, thoughtful fare like “Diamond Rings And Old Barstools” to mindless schlock like “Truck Yeah.” Last year, however, McGraw ran smack into the wall that is country music’s allergy to female artists, as a pair of duets with wife and fellow superstar Faith Hill (“Speak To A Girl,” “The Rest Of Our Life”) were confined to mediocre airplay peaks (#19 and #25, respectively). Now, McGraw returns to the airwaves with “Neon Church,” his first solo single since 2016’s “How I’ll Always Be,” and frankly, it’s about as disingenuous an ode to an old-school barroom that’s you’ll hear today. With its awkward production and uninspired writing, this song rolls off of the listener’s ears like water off a duck’s back, and doesn’t give them a good reason to pay attention.

Most of my problems with this song stem from the bizarre sound choices made by the producer. In a vacuum, this isn’t a bad mix: It’s got an electric guitar-driven melody (which gets more prominent over time and peaks with an in-your-face bridge solo), a mix of synthetic and real percussion (the song transitions from the former to the latter as it goes along), and a constant undercurrent of church organs in the background, giving the song a strong spiritual feel with some real passion behind it. However, the mix is a terrible fit for the subject matter, as this sort of spacious, arena-ready sound is the absolute last thing you’d expect to hear in the sort of “neon church” the narrator claims to laud. A true barroom song, like Garth Brooks’s “All Day Long,” needs a true barroom sound: Real instruments, a rougher (and ideally acoustic) foundation, and way more steel guitar than the stabs hidden in the background of “Neon Church.” In contrast, the clean, conventional mix we get here feels hollow rather than hallow, and leaves the listener questioning the singer’s devotion to that which he praises.

From a vocal perspective, this was a surprisingly weak performance from McGraw on nearly every level. His delivery was labored and occasionally hoarse (my mind drew some unflattering comparisons to Kip Moore), his flow faltered and fell behind the beat at points during the chorus, and worst of all, the earnest charisma that has sustained McGraw’s career for nearly three decades completely deserts him here, and he fails not only in transmitting the narrator’s pain to the audience, but in even convincing the audience that the tale is worth paying attention to. (While the production does him no favors, a veteran like McGraw should either be able to work around it or work with the producer to fix the problem.) I wasn’t terribly impressed with McGraw’s work on his recent duets with Hill, but his subpar performance here really makes me wonder if his long, storied career has finally reached its expiration date.

Country singers have been lionizing old-school bars as havens of healing for decades now, and while “Neon Church” attempts to put a new spin on the topic by comparing the bar to a house of worship (aren’t these basically polar opposites?), the end result is no more interesting than any other song on the subject. The writing never addresses the major contrast between the two locations (one offers temporary relief, the other tries to provide permanent relief), and even combining their imagery (getting baptized in smoke, having bartenders preach, and yes, the incredibly original phrase “honky-tonk angels”) doesn’t make the scenes feel any more lifelike or authentic. Finally, there’s so little attention paid to why the narrator is so downcast (one line about “gettin’ over you” is all we get) that the listener struggles to emphasize with them, and just wonders why it’s worth listening to their plight in the first place.

Is there a good song somewhere inside “Neon Church”? Maybe, but it needs a lot more support than Tim McGraw and the production give it here.  As it is, it’s just another song on the radio, and while McGraw has done a fantastic job keeping up with the times since his early-90s debut, Father Time remains undefeated (though it’s rumored he lost a preseason match to Willie Nelson), and it’s worth wondering if McGraw’s career has finally reached the end of the line.

Rating: 5/10. There are better way to spend your time.

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