THE GRADE B+
BOTTOM LINE Testing country’s boundaries to find how strong his Nashville ties really are.
Keith Urban walks an interesting tightrope on his 10th studio album, “Ripcord” (Capitol Nashville), balancing new influences with country traditionalism.
It’s a brave risk to take, considering how Urban is so skilled at everything the country mainstream values right now. He’s a great storyteller, a rock-leaning guitar virtuoso and as authentically likable as all get-out.
And “Ripcord” has plenty to keep conservative country fans happy. The single “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16,” which rolls through all sorts of traditional Nashville imagery over a pronounced bass line, has already topped the country charts. “Boy Gets a Truck” could be even more iconic, as Urban sings of young love over chiming U2-like guitars and a galloping beat that swells into an unforgettable country-rock thrill. The piano-driven “That Could Still Be Us” is achingly simple, as Urban tells the desperate, poignant story of trying to keep a relationship together. The production by Urban and Jonny Price keeps in all the emotion of his delivery — the breaks in his voice, the quivers of emotion and the way he catches his breath during the tough parts. It’s brilliant and shows Urban at the top of his game.
So why risk all that by surrounding it with influences that he hasn’t mastered? Well, it seems like he wanted the challenge. That means a Pitbull cameo in “Sun Don’t Let Me Down.” It means a double-time, R&B break in “Habit of You.” And it means the Coldplay-tinged dance pop duet “The Fighter.” But Urban weathers all those incongruities pretty well.
His stretching also gives us the gorgeous throwback soul of “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” which doesn’t just show how well country storytelling fits with that style, but also how Urban has really grown as a singer through the years. It shows how well Urban’s “Ripcord” risks can pay off.