March 31, 2009
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.