Keith Urban took his last name literally on his new album. For the first time, he’s worked with a rapper (Pitbull), a master of funk (Nile Rodgers) and even worked in some New York doo-wop. He’s also seized on influences from places as worldly as India and Israel and time-travelled back to the ‘80s to shock himself with major doses of synth-pop.
It’s hardly the first time this New Zealand-born star has tugged at the leash of country music. He’s been using drum machines on recordings since 2003. Yet never before has he opened himself so eagerly to a world of sound. Perhaps the uber-mainstream milieu Urban found himself in while hosting the final five seasons of American Idol had something to do with it. Those years spanned most of the time between his last album, 2013’s The Fuse and his latest. At the same time, his outreach mirrors the general expansion of country which, over the last few years, has integrated increasing amounts of hip-hop, metal, and more.
That’s the good news. On the other hand, Urban’s new inclusiveness did nothing to deepen the emotion in his voice, redeem the sentimentalism of his lyrics, or vary his blandly fraternal persona. It doesn’t help that he had a smaller role in the songwriting than on any previous album of his career, taking co-credits on fewer than half the songs.
For a touch of the personal, Urban managed to reference his late father in “Gone Tomorrow (Here Today),” which savors the moment in the face of mortality. He also gave a randy nod to wife Nicole Kidman in “Son Don’t Let Me Down,” which name-checks her role in 1995’s To Die For. The latter track stands out further for its attempt at urbanity—even if Pitbull’s rap sounds like something he came up during a break from working with J.Lo and Rodgers’ bass line is one of the least-funky things he’s ever conceived.
Urban also does himself no favors by approving so many cynically conforming lyrics. “John Cougar, John Deere John 3:16” reduces a man’s identity to a series of branding opportunities. “Boy Gets A Truck” trots out the plot of a common life with a shocking lack of perspective, while other tracks find Urban sleepwalking through his familiar persona, as protector and pep-talk dispenser. In the only song where he risks real pain, “That Could Still Be Us,” he self-consciously cracks his voice to simulate emotion.
Then again, depth isn’t Urban’s calling card. Fun is, and he managed to find a fresh expression for it in “Gone Tomorrow,” in which his trademark six string banjo mimics the flinty texture of a sitar. It’s also cool that in “Habit of You” Israeli producer K-Kov gave the tune a middle eastern lilt. Best, though, is “The Fighter,” a duet with Carrie Underwood which hasn’t a hint of country but which has just enough synth-pop pluck to become a pan-genre smash.