Keith Urban, Defying Gravity

keith-urban-defying-gravity

Keith Urban
Defying Gravity

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Personal hardship can be important source of inspiration for many artists. For Keith Urban, it’s been downright essential. Since his star-making Golden Road, the luster of Urban’s aesthetic package – talent, looks, catchy tunes – has stood in fascinating contrast to the pronounced sense of struggle in his music. When that struggle is present, it seems to manifest itself in every detail: the lyrics, the performances, even the restless arrangements. It’s as if Urban is fighting for salvation from untold demons with every note, like his music is the only thing powerful enough to dispel all the built-up pain.

Defying Gravity, however, marks a noticeable departure from that paradigm. Marriage to Nicole Kidman has apparently been good stuff, and this is Keith Urban at his most contented, both emotionally and – perhaps not by coincidence – musically. On both fronts, he seems to have found a comfortable, polished groove to play off of, and he and standby producer Dann Huff do so with ease and confidence over the course of these eleven tracks.

But here’s the thing: it’s kind of boring. Without the slightest bit of edge fueling his expression, Urban seems curiously devoid of the passion that marks his best work, and curiously uninterested in pushing himself very far musically. These are all highly competent songs and performances, to be sure – there was no reason to expect anything less, given the man’s technical abilities and generally agreeable track record – but they feel more executed than fully loved. There are zero true risks and zero unexpected rewards, and the feel-good vibes never manage to feel quite as good as they have in the past. It’s just all very nice.

Of course, Keith Urban doing “nice” still means a lot of cool stuff is going on. Several of these songs boast wonderfully breezy hooks – “Standing Right in Front in You”, lead singles “Sweet Thing” and “Kiss a Girl”, to name just a few – and sometimes, as on the vaguely tribal percussion of “If Ever I Could Love” or the somber atmospherics of “‘Till Summer Comes Around”, Urban’s willingness to stretch his palette of sounds imbues the album with some much-needed character (although, it should be noted, there are fewer distinguishable “country” elements here than ever).

Problem is, he never quite gets it totally right. Half of the time, the execution is just too bland to endow the songs with any personality, and the other half, the songs aren’t particularly interesting to begin with, usually as a result of bum lyrics.

Nowhere is the first problem better exemplified than on his cover of Radney Foster’s “I’m In.” It’s a charmer of a song, the kind of thing Urban should totally knock out of the park, but aside from an exploding guitar solo that breaks the monotony for a moment, his performance and Huff’s production do little more than add an unnatural muscle to Foster’s original version (the live rendition of which remains the song’s best incarnation to date). The opposite approach strikes on Urban’s direct ode to Kidman, “Thank You”, which would be one of the album’s best tracks if not for the life-draining drum-machine-and-keyboard combo (almost identical-sounding, incidentally, to the one employed on the last album’s “Got It Right This Time”, which was far more effective).

As for that second problem of song quality, it generally occurs here because Urban runs out of good rhymes or interesting ways to describe romantic feelings (or both at the same time: “If ever I could love / I think it could be with you / If ever I thought I’d / Found somebody so true.”). This issue emerges as early on as the chorus of “Kiss a Girl”, then carries on into essentially every song on the album that addresses love in a nondescriptly positive way – which is almost half of them.

And on those few occasions where Urban does mix up his theme a bit, the contrasting ideas don’t stand up strongly enough. “When Summer Comes Around”, in particular, has the skeleton to be a fantastic study of loneliness, but it stacks so much lyrical weight onto its “empty carnival” premise that it comes off sounding cheesy and melodramatic instead. Throw in “Why’s It Feel So Long” – which is too cute and fluffy for even Urban to sell – and all those nondescript love songs start to sound pretty good in comparison.

Altogether, Defying Gravity comes off sounding like a whole lot of polish without much soul, a first for Urban’s career as a superstar. The dilemma he seems to face from here on out is finding ways to create invigorating music without recycling his own templates and resorting to cliche. Perhaps the solution will require some homework – a new producer? A new, perhaps rootsier musical approach? – but whatever it is, one thing is certain: if he insists on living a personal life free of constant struggle now (the nerve!), he’s got to find some other way to bring his old urgency back to the game. It may mean taking on new kinds of challenges along the way, but it’s like they say: no pain, no gain.


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12 Comments

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12 Responses to Keith Urban, Defying Gravity

  1. Honestly, I’m reading all these “negative” reviews, and I’m listening to this album and really enjoying it a lot. Maybe it just clicks with me, but I can see the lack of challenge- it seems to easy for Keith to make this album.

    Whatever, I still really like this album.

  2. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    Even the last track, which I thought had potential, suffers from a production that I hate. I just don’t like what sounds like generic drum loops rather than actual studio musicians. I felt like we’d gone back to the eighties with many of the productions and the seventies for others. I’ve really never been super fond of either. And as far as the music having anything to do with country music? I couldn’t detect it. I even thought his voice sounded a bit strained in places. Maybe I’ll warm up to it, but I thought his last album was my least favorite of his, but this one wins out for me.

  3. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar

    I’m with ya, Leeann. I didn’t want to rag on him any more than I did, but it’s a frustrating release on many levels. I can hear the technical appeal behind much of it, but this is the first time with Keith where I wasn’t particularly interested in buying any of the tracks for myself.

  4. gailNo Gravatar

    Too bad you don’t like it! I love this album!! Why does every song have to have “deep” meaning and jump off the CD at you. Why can’t you just simply listen and let all that jargon you guys talk about go and just try to enjoy this music!! The DJs on my station said they loved it! Oh well, different opinions are what make the world a unique place. I just saw Keith perform 2 songs on the TODAY show this morning and he was in such a great mood and he sang awesome. What a voice Keith has. He sounds live like he does on CD!

  5. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar

    I do use a lot of what probably sounds like jargon, so my apologies for that. :) I’m never sure my album reviews make sense to anyone but me, honestly. That’s probably why I procrastinate writing them like mad.

    But anyway, I really am a big Keith Urban fan when he’s at his best, and honestly I tend to listen more to his uptempo, less “deep” material than I do to his ballads, probably just because I don’t want to be depressed all the time. :) But I just don’t think any of the songs on this album are quite as memorable as, say, “Somebody Like You” or “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me.” Both of those were pretty lighthearted and fun, but they had a little more meat to me, probably because they did acknowledge a bit of hardship along with the happiness, where most of the songs on this album are just peppy, end of story.

    But yeah, different strokes, it’s whatever. Which songs did he perform on the Today show?

  6. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    I’m not even looking for deep meanings from Urban at this point. I like a “deep” song as much as the next person, but I’m also all about the fun stuff too. The problem is I want to feel something and I felt nothing, fun or sad, from this album. Like Dan, his fast, upbeat stuff (“Somebody Like You”, “God’s Been Good” to Me”, “You Look Good In My Shirt”, “Who Wouldn’t Want to Be Me” etc.) are among my favorite Urban songs. Not only didn’t most of the lyrics do anything for me, I didn’t enjoy the production choices or even most of the melodies. I thought Dan was being generous here. Too bad for me though, because Urban has been one of my favorite artists, even after not Love, Pain…. I suspect he will be again at some point though.

  7. CaseyNo Gravatar

    I’ll give you your 2 1/2 stars, because we’ve all come to expect better from Mr. Urban (though personally I would give it 3, maybe 3 1/2 stars…radio has been and will be very kind to the singles methinks).

    Now, if I tune in next week and Rascal Flatts has anything above a 2 1/2…there will be problems. :P

  8. Craig R.No Gravatar

    Leeann,
    I think you and Dan have hit upon an issue that Urban and great many other “country” singers seem to suffer from: emotional push. I agree that every song doesn’t need to be deep ( although a great many country songs wouldn’t suffer with more depth). It is really the emotion that strikes me as well. Honesty, self-awareness, wit, and some sadness can make a fun song great,if not better,than a deep song.

    Keith Urban has never been a country singer in opinion. He always comes off as a sort David Cassidy with age. But when he first arrived on the scene I thought his vocals for songs like ” I Want To Be Your Every Thing” “Where The Blacktop Ends” and ” You’ll Think Of Me” were the perfect balance of grit and self-awarness. But I noticed that his songs have been gaining a speed that applies only to the fast pace of country radio. They are light on lyrics, cloudy with fake sounds, and very short on emotion of any real depth. Urban can do better. Maybe his status has changed the way he thinks his songs should be. The last song he sang that I really enjoyed was “I Won’t Say I Told You So” which I thought was cutting and tongue-in-cheek, at least in his delivery. But it still wasn’t country. And country music needs emotion; real, raw, honest emotion even when it is up-tempo.

  9. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    Oh yeah, let me add “I Told You So” to my list of songs of Urban’s that aren’t deep that I love.

  10. Chris N.No Gravatar

    “The DJs on my station said they loved it!”

    I hate to break it to you, but you’re never going to find a radio DJ who admits to not loving a song by one of the genre’s core artists.

    That said, I’m really enjoying the record. I know he’s playing below his game, but it’s still sort of irresistible.

  11. I’ve only listened to this album once – and it was a quick run-through while I was reading and sending email so I wasn’t paying super attention. That said, it didn’t sound all that different from any other Keith Urban album from a casual listen.

  12. AaronNo Gravatar

    I’m listening to this one now and I am finding it very boring. It’s probably my least favorite album of Keith’s.