By David Browne
Updated April 23, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Tim McGraw: James Minchin/Corbis Outline

For all his success, Tim McGraw is in one fine mess. A genuine post- Garth star in the country world, he sells millions of records, garners one award after another, and is married to Faith Hill, with whom he made another fortune on tour last year. But how does that level of accomplishment jibe with the longstanding image of the male country singer — the stoic brooder who speaks to the heartbroken, the wanderlusting, and the prematurely world weary, whether they live in the suburbs or on a farm? It doesn’t, of course, so for Set This Circus Down, McGraw takes a page from last year’s presidential candidates and aims to be everything to everybody.

From the eclectic songs he and his coproducers have chosen to the simple fact that his face doesn’t appear on the cover for the first time, ”Set This Circus Down” presents itself as an Important Statement, McGraw’s career defining work. Though McGraw doesn’t write any of his material, the album feels conceptual, almost autobiographical. On ”Unbroken,” ”Smilin’,” and the title song, he’s over the top thankful for his life, wife, and kids, and the muscular brawn of his smoothed out Southern rock matches his mood. Seeing a destitute woman and child in ”Grown Men Don’t Cry,” which grows more maudlin with each verse, he realizes how good he has it.

McGraw must have realized that an entire album of such songs would have been the equivalent of rubbing a picture of Hill in our faces. So like a good actor, he slips into a number of different guises for the rest of the disc. He’s a ”never satisfied” loner tamed by a ”cowgirl” in ”The Cowboy in Me,” a distraught loser in love in ”You Get Used to Somebody” and ”Why We Said Goodbye,” a somewhat reformed sinner in ”Angel Boy,” and a disconsolate blue collar joe reaching for some beer and ”a little blue pill” in ”Forget About Us.”

With rumbling electric guitars and a vocal delivery that make it feel like an early ’90s Springsteen outtake, the latter track typifies the album’s stylistic reaches. With longtime coproducers James Stroud and Byron Gallimore, McGraw manages to find a reasonable middle ground between the supermodel pop country of Hill and Shania Twain and the retro Nashville flavor of, say, Junior Brown. The tracks pile on the rock guitar and arena rattling drums, and the lyrics reference middle class touchstones like Suburbans, TV infomercials, and a ”shopping center.” But McGraw & Co. are astute enough to slip in fiddles and steel guitars for authenticity. The results aren’t real country but an acceptable, inoffensive substitute.

Although McGraw’s voice can be nondescript, it has just enough of a drawl around the edges to lend it some character. ”Angry All the Time,” a ballad about a long separated couple looking back over their lives, could have been pure Nashville soap opera schmaltz, but McGraw, with help from a cameo by his wife, actually makes it potent. ”Angel Boy,” the album’s most ambitious track, glistens like techno lite and has a manipulated voice hook that would be at home in an Offspring single. Just as often, though, his ambitions undercut him: ”Let Me Love You” is a misguided attempt at a ”Smooth” sequel, down to Santana style rhythms and guitar solo. And ”Things Change,” a salute to Hank, Elvis, and other renegades later accepted by the establishment, isn’t the stirring anthem it means to be, in part because it makes a pretty obvious point.

For all its modest thrills, ”Set This Circus Down” still doesn’t bust enough moves to make it the declaration of independence McGraw wants it to be. Despite his black hat and goatee, which always made him seem borderline ”dangerous” in Nashville terms, McGraw makes music that’s ultimately too polite. Maybe he’s still atoning for 1994’s ”Indian Outlaw,” his unabashedly cheesy (and non PC) hit. As it stands, McGraw is a solid, upright country act. Whether he’ll ever be a great one depends on if and when he decides to burn the circus down.