BOTTOM LINE Pushing country’s boundaries again, but keeping his own intact
Watch Keith Urban play guitar in concert and you see an artist transported by the music he makes.
Listen to Urban sing, though, and he seems more restrained, especially on his new album “Graffiti U” (Hit Red/Capitol Nashville) and its equally eclectic predecessor, the hit-filled “Ripcord.” That’s not to say “Grafitti U” isn’t well-crafted, though, or that his goal of weaving pop, rock and dance music into country isn’t worthy.
The current single “Coming Home” shows how it all works, with Urban sampling a bit of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” to put some twang in the dance groove. When Grammy-nominated pop singer-songwriter Julia Michaels joins in, it becomes a sweetly effective combination of styles. On “Never Comin' Down,” Urban moves from funky verses to a banjo-picking, good-time chorus and even takes an Afrobeat detour in the bridge. The lovely “Same Heart” starts off with some icy electronics in the verses before warming up in the chorus.
However, sometimes you can almost hear Urban’s anxiety as he leaves his comfort zone. He seems like he’s trying hard to keep up on “Way Too Long,” struggling to hit notes in the poppier keys and tempos that co-writers Michaels and Nate Ruess usually use. On “Parallel Line,” co-written by Michaels and Ed Sheeran, Urban seems wary of the sparseness of the song and fills all the space with countermelodies and echoing vocals that detract from the immediacy and rawness of Sheeran’s best work. Similarly, the impact of Urban’s #MeToo anthem “Female” is blunted by the torrent of images in the chorus while the stark verses made his point so powerfully.
Trying new things is admirable. But when Urban is on familiar ground, as he is on the future sing-along “Steal My Thunder,” he shows how far his experiments have to go to reach his usual stellar level.