Monday, September 9, 2013

album review: 'fuse' by keith urban

I think, over the past several years, I've been unfair to Keith Urban.

At first glance, the rise and success of Keith Urban and his type of handsome, inoffensive pop-country is the sort of direction for country music that gets my nerves, mostly because of a marked shift in instrumentation, production, and themes. The songwriting gets a little shallower in order to court mass-market appeal, the production is a little more bland to sand down the rough edges, the instrumentation is simplified, and it's all fronted by a succession of musicians who look distinctly too polished to be performing country music. What's worse is that many of these acts attempt to co-opt traditional country elements into their songwriting and it often sounds forced, inauthentic, and fake.

Now to his credit, Keith Urban has rarely, if ever, done this, and I think there's a few very simple reasons why. Firstly, he's actually Australian, and thus probably didn't grow up with the cultural attitudes that might push him to adopt styles that don't match his image. Secondly, despite the more polished style of music Keith Urban has written, produced, and performed throughout his career, it feels authentic with his image. He has always seemed distinctly comfortable in his stylistic choices, and the fact that, unlike some country singers (looking at you, Justin Moore) seems like a genuinely nice guy, means that he's not going to co-opt somebody else's style if it doesn't work for him. Thirdly and finally, Keith Urban is actually a pretty good songwriter on his own, so he never needed to run to the country song generating machine that Nashville has turned into for some artists.

That being said, the majority of many critic' issues with Keith Urban isn't that he's offensive or bad, but that he's kind of boring. It's sort of like the same issue I had with Jay Sean - not that the music is all that egregiously awful, but that it doesn't really inspire much emotion. If I wanted to be crass, I could call him a pretty face without a lot of substance (seriously, Keith Urban seems to have only gotten better looking with age, it's unnerving), but that's not entirely fair because he has indeed written some solid, catchy, occasionally emotionally evocative tunes, and I can't really hate the guy. To me, I've always slotted him in with Rascal Flatts, as a country act that's a little polished and a little too slick for me to really get enthused about, but nobody I can really take offensive with either. 

But as I said, I might have been a little unfair to the guy, because his new album Fuse reportedly was described as Keith Urban trying a new artistic direction, which was enough to catch my interest and give the new album a look. After all, Keith Urban has been around long enough in the scene of solo male country singers to practically be considered an elder statesman of the genre. So how does the new album Fuse turn out?

Well, believe it or not, it's actually pretty good. However, this is definitely an album that will turn off people who don't go into it with the right expectations. If you're looking for a rough, grimy country album about drinking beer, driving trucks, and kicking ass... well, why the hell are you listening to Keith Urban in the first place, but you're not going to get that album here.

In fact, the first big qualification I'd make when talking about Fuse is that it's barely a country album. The production is very much pop, sanding down all of the rough edges to take Keith Urban's already very polished delivery to make it even friendly for pop radio. It's definitely a stylistic shift in line with the one that Taylor Swift made with Red, to the point where I'd have a hard time calling Keith Urban a country artist in the same way. In fact, the majority of the songs that attempt to have more rough edges and banjo and rock guitar just don't work because the production is so slick and polished and thus any of the harder instrumentation feels completely toothless. 

And the amazing thing is that this shift in style works completely for me. In one way, it's completely obvious - Keith Urban has always straddled the line between pop and country, so his shift in a more pop direction isn't surprising and isn't really a sellout. And I'll say it: his voice, a smoother tenor with less of an accent, is a natural fit for pop radio, arguably more than it was for country radio. And even though I have a preference for rough-edged, textured country music over Keith Urban's more polished brand of music, I won't dismiss an act for making a turn towards pop, particularly when it's a great fit for the artist.

However, as good as a fit as Keith Urban the singer is for pop radio, some of the more acoustic country instrumentation doesn't quite mesh as well with the more electronic production, and there are a couple of jarring moments throughout the album where the electronic drum machines don't quite seem to fit well with the organic guitars. Although Keith Urban is a lot better at fusing country with modern pop than the majority of his contemporaries, there are still moments that don't quite work as well as they could. A niggling complaint comes up in the vocal production, especially - occasionally, there are moments of sloppiness where his voice is either a bit too loud or too quiet in contrast with the instrumentation, which should have been cleaned up a bit. That being said, on songs where Keith Urban does go for straight country, like on the uber-patriotic duet with Eric Church 'Raise 'Em Up' (where Urban is smart enough to let Eric Church's richer, more arena-driven country style take center stage, and it works excellently), he still has the chops, particularly on guitar, to make it work.

This takes us to Keith Urban himself, and I'll reiterate what I said about him earlier: he seems like a nice, good, down-to-earth guy, and he never phones it in on his vocal delivery. He sounds completely sincere, and that does wonders for giving his more sentimental songs a fair bit of emotional heft - and, completely honestly, it surprised me how much it worked for me. That being said, whenever he and his songwriters try to write a more modern country song, complete with some of the leering obsession with picking up girls, it's completely ridiculous, mostly because Keith Urban sounds so far out of his element. This is the same issue Jay Sean had on Neon, but Keith Urban makes the wise decision to mostly avoid songs where he's expected to sound like a badass and stick with softer material. This guy is best equipped for exuberant love songs with a little bit more of a softer touch, and when he's working in that area, it works like gangbusters. If I am to criticize his vocals a bit, I will say that his attempts at falsetto on 'She's My 11' really fall flat for me - his voice in this range is very weak, and it fell flat for me. But that's one song, and for the most part, Keith Urban nails his vocal delivery: sincere, heartfelt, and genuinely emotional.

Of course, the reason the sentimentality worked more for me here than it normally would is fairly simple: there are plenty of well-written songs on this album. This has always been a hidden strength of Keith Urban and one that kind of sneaked up on me in a good way. It made songs like 'Cop Car', where he and his sweetheart get busted by cops her father sent after they ran off, feel surprisingly authentic, mostly because of the little details and Keith Urban's delivery. That's something I liked about this album - the songs have such a naturally free-flowing naturalistic verse quality, filled with little moments of poetry that you'll completely miss on the first listen and yet will really grow on you later. I'll say this for Keith Urban, it helps that he sells wistful heartbreak really quite well on songs like 'Somewhere In My Car' and 'Come Back To Me' and 'We Were Us' (with Miranda Lambert) - and again, it's in the little details that both set the scene and add moments and context that I really liked. If I'm going to nitpick here, I will say that there's a couple of lines throughout some of the album's less memorable tracks that do fall flat for me, but they're in the minority. And yeah, there's the typical Southern pride elements that I'm not the biggest fan of, but Keith Urban manages to make them less grating mostly because instead of shoving it in your face, he uses those elements to enhance the atmosphere of the song, adding authenticity and making those moments feel real, and I liked that.

So in summary, I liked Keith Urban's Fuse a lot more than I expected I would. Now I know some people are going to be braying that it's a sellout - and sure, let's call it that, but if so, it's the kind of sell-out that works well, showing an evolution in the sound while keeping the integrity of the good songwriting intact. It's pop country, to be sure, but it's damn good pop country all the same. If there was a bit more polish in the production and instrumentation, it'd probably be one of the stronger albums of the year for me - as it is, it's pretty solid all the same. If you're a fan of Keith Urban or music in the pop country vein, you'd probably like Fuse. And if you're angry that Keith Urban 'sold out' or some other nonsense... well, give it a listen anyway. You might be surprised.

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