Friday, May 13, 2016

album review: 'ripcord' by keith urban

I've talked a fair bit before about the thin line between pop and country, a divide between genres that to some isn't just about the music, but ideology as well. The very idea that country could exist in the same space as pop, with clean and polished tones, light subject matter, and touches of modern production, that's offensive to some people, because it betrays country's commitment to history and authenticity.

Now I'm not one of those people, because like it or not, I think that pop country can be a workable subgenre. Just because the subject matter is lighter, the production is more polished, and the singers are prettier doesn't mean there can't be great music with strong melodies, good performers, and smart writing. Think Lucy Hale, or Shania Twain at her peak - or on the flip side, you could have Keith Urban. And let's make no mistake here, ever since he came up in the same mold with the same producer as Rascal Flatts, he's been making very polished, very accessible pop country. The big difference between him and Rascal Flatts is that he had charisma and better songwriters and wasn't afraid to give his solid guitarwork a little more room to breathe. I'm never going to say that he was an essential act in the 2000s, or that he didn't make very pop songs, especially on his 2013 album Fuse. And yet keep in mind that when I covered it back in 2013 on this channel, I actually liked that album, and for the most part I still do: by keeping the melodies prominent and the percussion grooves breezy, even when they were electronic, the album was an easy, fun listen with some above-average songwriting that was a real pleasant surprise.

Unfortunately, going into Ripcord I had a lot more misgivings - like it or not pop music has gotten more choppy and staccato thanks to the influence of trap, which does not help the flow of a record like this, and the songwriting was only feeling more inane, lacking the subtle flourishes that gave songs on Fuse more personality. I wasn't really wild about any of the lead-off singles, and seeing a Pitbull collaboration immediately threw up a red flag. That said, Keith Urban has earned a fair bit of good will with me, so even despite some pretty harsh critical reviews, I gave it a listen: what did I find?

Honestly, very little, even by the ephemeral standards of pop country. Actually, that's not quite true, because that would make the implication that this record is remotely country instead of a slice of acoustic-touched pop that wouldn't be out of place in the late 90s. And make no mistake, there's a part of me that's more than a little peeved that this'll inevitably get play on some country stations despite being the furthest thing from it. And yet even if we choose to consider this just as pop music... man, there's not a lot here at all, a record going for breezy appeal that ends up just completely insubstantial.

So let's start with what would normally be the biggest asset on a record like this: Keith Urban himself. As I said, this guy has charisma and an infectious sincerity that can be easy to like - even if he didn't write the tracks, he's a believable presence. And yet... the spark doesn't really come through here in the same way. We'll talk more about it when we get to the production, but for as much experimentation as there is here, Keith Urban doesn't seem to be throwing the same wide-eyed passion that he had on Fuse. And bizarrely, he doesn't seem to have a lot of chemistry with his guest stars, with Pitbull delivering his verses with a little more reserve than he normally has - including a lyric about doing shots for soldiers fighting for freedom that doesn't remotely fit with his persona or the rest of the song. And then there's Carrie Underwood on 'The Fighter' - and wow, you can tell she phoned this in, because there's no way in hell I buy her ever being vulnerable or scared enough that Keith Urban would be the one supporting her and providing comfort. 

And believe it or not, it ties into one of the bigger lyrical problems of this album, namely that none of it caters to Keith Urban's strengths as a performer. Putting aside the fact that Keith Urban is nearly fifty and is trying to sound like he's my age or younger, Keith Urban at his best has a bright eyed energy that's heartfelt and sincere - it's one of the reasons songs like 'Cop Car' worked so well on Fuse. But this record never really tilts into that as a strength - maybe a little on 'Wasted Time' or 'Worry Bout Nothin', but more of this record plays towards slinkier, 'sexier' R&B or party jams, both which require a tightness and coolness in the writing and delivery that Keith Urban just doesn't pull off well. It doesn't help matters that the writing can feel awfully sloppy at points - I've talked about the completely unconvincing checklist of lead-off single 'John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16' before on Billboard BREAKDOWN, but then you have the stab at a growing up anthem with 'Boy Gets A Truck' that tries to chain the chorus together with the last word of line matching the first of the next and the cadence feels rushed against the groove. I could go on about the lazy rhyming on the hook of 'Your Body' or how the pseudo-rap cadence is just a poor fit for Keith Urban, but those are aesthetic quibbles - what really irked me about the writing were the songs that felt lacking in romantic nuance. And sure, Keith Urban has never been defined by nuance, but take 'Break On Me' - again, I've already talked about this song on Billboard BREAKDOWN, but this 'Come Crying To Me' riff doesn't ring as romantic as Keith consoles this girl saying she can 'shatter like glass' against him. And it's not just here: 'Habit Of You' takes the titular line and makes it about a hookup he likes, because that's romantic; and then there's 'Blue Ain't Your Colour' where Keith gets drunk and tries to console a sad girl at a bar in a bad relationship that she doesn't need to be sad and be with that guy - you're not exactly subtle here, buddy. 

Hell, that lack of subtlety might be the biggest reason why so many of these songs don't stick for me - when your instrumentation is as chilly and desaturated as it is here, you need emotional nuance or a brighter demeanor to add life to these songs, and since we don't really have either, might as well talk about the production. Now credit must be given to Keith Urban for some decent guitar tones and at least a commitment to keeping good grooves thrumming beneath these tracks - for as pop as this album is, he's at least keeping the momentum going. But here's the thing: when you have a song like 'Gone Tomorrow (Here Today)' that might as well have come from Robbie Williams 1999 with the incredibly stiff drum programming, it's not a good sign when the bassline overwhelms any sense of instrumental melody outside of an incredibly thin banjo line, some atmospheric synth and a few jagged flashes of guitar that don't nearly stick around enough. But fine, even if that kind of works there and for the Pitbull collaboration  'Sun Don't Let Me Down' that punches up a mediocre guitar melody but also adds a dinky synth as punctuation, it's a lot less effective when we have songs that scream for brighter, more colourful textures. 'Wasted Time' is the biggest example - the rubbery low synths, programmed clap, even with slightly brighter guitars and the breezy multi-tracking on the hook it doesn't have the same warmth as even a track that's playing in the same vein like 'Good Time' by Owl City & Carly Rae Jepsen. Granted, that song is a modern summer pop classic, but it highlights how cold so much of this album feels - the awkward blend of nasal backing vocals, clumsily blended guitars, and trap percussion on 'Habit Of You', the faded melodies against the acoustic groove on 'Gettin In The Way', the disco guitar of 'The Fighter' against the warping keys that never really pays off its chorus, the brittle acoustic groove of 'Break On Me' with the prominent bass melody that features some of the most poorly blended backing vocals I've heard in a while, and 'Your Body' trying its best to rip off 'Cheyenne' with louder guitar - no, not the George Strait song, the Jason Derulo track. 

But it was the rougher guitar groove focus on 'Boy Gets A Truck' and 'Worry Bout Nothin', the latter probably being the best song - even despite those limp Casio synths - that crystallized what sound this record was trying for most: Kip Moore's Wild Ones. The same thicker grooves, rougher guitars, and even though Keith Urban relies more on drum machines, it could have worked... so why doesn't it connect? In a word, atmosphere - Kip Moore gave his melodies meat and room to ride his grooves and swell within the mix, whereas so much of Ripcord seems to hem itself in, using reverb to give the illusion of depth even as so many of the melodies are thin and brittle and can't support it. It's awkwardly forcing something that should come naturally - and really, talk about an apt metaphor for this record, because this is definitely not good. Forget pop country - even judging it as pure pop music, it's clunky, monochromatic, sloppily written and produced, and it doesn't sound like Keith Urban's heart is in it. For as much as Keith Urban has talked about spontaneity in interviews about this record, to me it sounds like calculated desperation to keep up with modern sounds, with seven different producers trying to make it work. And the sad fact is that it doesn't - i wanted to like this as a guy who likes Keith Urban... but sorry, this is a 4/10 and I can't recommend it. Let's hope Keith Urban can correct his trajectory and fast, because the winds of country are changing and I can see this getting blown away.

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