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.
Almost twenty years after he first started touring in the Southeast, Azar signed his first major label record deal with Mercury in 2001. The resulting album Waitin’ on Joe, included a top five single “I Don’t Have to Be Me (‘Til Monday)” and the title track, best known for its corresponding video clip featuring Academy Award-winning film star Morgan Freeman. But Azar’s brand of delta blues failed to bust through radio’s brick wall. Instead of enduring an endless cycle of false starts, he exited the major label system.
Released on his own Dang Records, Indianola (named for the Mississippi birthplace of B.B. King) is a tribute to his down-home roots and a symbol of his vast store of experience. He’s pushed most of the right buttons on an album that teems with the gritty reality that stems from a life fully lived. By engineering and producing the set, along with writing or co-writing every track, Azar firmly establishes an engaging musical identity.
“Crowded” kicks off Indianola with a complaint, with Azar railing against a shrinking world (“I moved out to the country, but the city keeps movin’ in”). And as the album unravels, Azar’s longings for emotional freedom form the common thread. “Flatlands” takes him on a journey through “a thousand acres of cotton rows” as he seeks the comfort of the wide-open country. Later, in “Still Tryin’ to Find My Way Around,” digs under the skin with its story of a misdirected soul, sweetened by a beautiful steel guitar.
The strongest moments on Indianola come courtesy of Azar and co-writer Rafe Van Hoy. The pair’s artistic chemistry is evident on “The River’s Workin’,” a relevant portrait of back-breaking manual labor as a means of living. “Empty Spaces” is a reflective number tinged with traditional gospel, as Azar describes life as a “search of the pieces and the parts” that eventually fill our needs. And he seems to have stumbled upon what’s truly important in the Radney Foster co-write “You’re My Life,” where he worships a faithful wife, his first source of security during hard times.
The slightest stumbling block on Indianola is the fluctuation in musical arrangements, prompting some of the consistency in the collection to be lost. The best moments are the simplest. Two hidden tracks, “Mississippi Minute” and “Highway 61,” are bathed with acoustic settings, suggesting that Azar’s true strengths aren’t in the polished product, but in matter-of-fact musical statements that cut right to the chase without screeching guitars and bombastic production. By any stretch of the imagination, Indianola isn’t a radical change for Azar, but taking ownership of his craft has enabled him to follow his own path and reach deep for meaning within the music.
Life as a singer-songwriter has run the gamut from major-league success to disappointing failure for Steve Azar. Azar first signed a record deal in 1995, and his most notable single “I Don’t Have To Be Me (‘Til Monday)” earned Top Five status in 2002. The artist has endured long stretches of relative inactivity on the record shelves and on the radio. After leaving Mercury Records in 2005, he struggled in his pursuit of another recording contract, but returned this year with Indianola, an album on his own record label, Dang! Records. His latest single is “You’re My Life”, an ode to undying love and devotion.
The song, co-written by Steve and Radney Foster, owns an acoustic country-rock arrangement. Buoyed by a sweet organ sound and the bluesy quality of Azar’s voice, “You’re My Life” is a cut above the rest of country music’s love songs. Is the song revolutionary? No. But it does sprinkle enough unique details into the verse (his woman is a “smooth, rolling river” and a “warm and tender night”) to rise just a little higher than those paint-by-numbers sappy ballads that fill quite a few mainstream country releases.
Azar is a talent, and his album is distinctive in theme and sound. “You’re My Life” may not be the song that jump starts his career again, but it is a quality piece of work.