[24 April 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Keith Urban trafficks in the promise of love. In song after song he looks you in the eye and beckons, “Baby come here and be mine. Give me your heart and together we’ll climb the tallest mountain, jump over the moon. I’ve been searching for you forever and here you are. I’ll be true to you ‘til the end of time. I’ll show you what love can really be, what life can really be.”
Urban’s last album, Love, Pain and the Whole Crazy Thing, explored the confusion and murkiness of love, with a sound to match. Love on that album was not a simple thing. There were no picture-perfect endings. Defying Gravity, on the other hand, is pure romantic make-believe, wish fulfillment. It’s a soap opera and romance novel rolled up in one. It embodies the general sweep of his career, a search for positivity, for that ideal love, and then takes it to another level. The songs do acknowledge hurt, but privilege the promise of eternal love. Almost every song on Defying Gravity uses that word, love. And in most of the songs he sings directly to someone, calling her “baby”. He tells her how perfect things could be, if only she were there, if only he could reach her, if only she would open her heart to him. In “If Ever I Could Love”, he’s so lonely he cries at night for someone who isn’t there. But he’s ready to start over, ready for a new love, and you might be the one. In “My Heart Is Open”, his message is similar. He thought he’d never be able to love again, but now he’s ready. “Only You Can Love Me This Way” takes it a step further. There’s no one else in the world for him but you.
These sentiments are nothing new, but Urban dives in completely, musically, and lyrically. The album, co-produced by Urban and Dann Huff, has a smooth, lush sound that fits the material like a well-tailored suit. Layers of instruments, voices and even ambient sound (a Ferris wheel in one song, a ringing phone in another) come together to form pillow-like song structures that nonetheless possess catchy melodic pop-rock forward motion. This isn’t sitting-in-a-bar, crying-in-your-beer country music. It’s the 21st century model of country, related to ‘80s pop and rock balladry and anthems as much as anything else. It’s fluff, in the best sense of the word.
Within this cloud of fantasy, Urban’s guitar is generally more expressive of the sadness of love than his singing or the songs. “I’m In” acknowledges that words necessarily fumble, that talk of love soon turns into clichés. Urban’s songs embrace that fact. His guitar stands apart from it. In places throughout the album, he sings an especially emphatic line and then lets the guitar take over for a solo that flows feeling-wise from the lyric but takes it further. It happens in the last 76 seconds of “My Heart Is Open”; in “Why’s It Feel So Long” after he begs for her to call him; at the end of “Hit the Ground Runnin’” where he declares with a fair amount of desperation that if she leaves he’s coming after her. But the guitars do something similar as part of the fabric of the songs. In “Sweet Thing”, for example, a repeating guitar part is key to the atmosphere of the song. In the opening song “Kiss a Girl”, guitar drives the melody in a way that mimics the emotion of his current lonely state, even while it also supports the general movement of the song towards tender comfort, him wrapped in the arms of someone new.
“Kiss a Girl” immediately puts the album in the grip of that dream of the love that, Urban imagines, is out there. As the song starts, our man has suffered some heartbreak, but everything will be better once he has someone to kiss. At first it almost doesn’t matter who he’s kissing, and he promises to take it slow. It’s just a kiss. But even in that first kiss he’s thinking about the future. “Maybe tonight / it could turn into the rest of our life / are you ready?”, he sings. An eternal life of magic and adventure is just around the corner. Are you ready?
Take the album as a whole, and Urban’s dedication to ideal love falls just this side of creepy. He’d go anywhere, do anything to get this love. In “Hit the Ground Runnin’”, he would run faster than grass grows, to catch her if she ever leaves him. In “Why’s It Feel So Long”, she’s just left for a vacation and already he’s going nuts. “I might be crazy”, he sings with laughter in his voice, “crazy about being your man.” In the moody “’Til Summer Comes Around”, he takes a job at a summer fair just to find the girl he met once upon a time at that same fair. He waits summer after summer to see her again. You can imagine him decades later, the aging carny still crying himself to sleep over this one memory of a touch, a kiss, a ride together on the Ferris wheel. It’s a memory so vivid he can describe it in full, yet it’s elusive. He can’t dream her back into his arms. Pretend is all he has.
It’s this level of obsession that gives this album of daydreams a measure of depth. Even while the music captures precisely that starry-eyed vision of a perfect love, the songs carry a certain level of awareness about the dark places these fantasies can lead, about how easy it is for unlikely dreams to imagine themselves into obsessions. In “Standing Right in Front of You”, he sees her every day but has never spoken to her. Inside his head and heart, though, he knows that she’s the one. “Baby why can’t you see that I’m the only one for you,” he asks her, or himself. The song ends up becoming a dream not about this one pretty woman on the sidewalk, but about his desire to find a love so that he can change himself. The pivotal moment is when he dedicates himself to love as a vocation, and declares, “give me a chance / I’d be a better man for you.” The notion fits with a general trend of masculine self-improvement songs in country music these days (see Kenny Chesney, Montgomery Gentry’s last album, much of Trace Adkins’ last album). It also turns an expression of devotion to a stranger into a more epic, if deluded, testament to the power of love.
Throughout this album of intense love letters are scattered aphorisms and platitudes. “No one should be lonely”, he states in “Kiss a Girl”. In “My Heart Is Open” he has a spiel where he puts his obsessive quest in opposition with society. Of course it’s also a come-on, and a wish:
These days it seems like everybody’s just walking away / like there’s no forever and love is just a game / but don’t’cha know that you can believe me when I say that I’m your man and my heart is open and I’m letting you in baby
In that moment, Defying Gravity seems like an argument for fantasy in our tough times. After all, in that song, it seems that they haven’t known each other long, if it all. He was lonely until he saw her eyes. Does she feel the same? Imagine “My Heart Is Open” as a pick-up line at a bar, and you start to see how the whole album can be viewed as a dream, a lovesick invention. In many of the songs, the woman he’s singing to might not even know he’s there. She might not remember that summer at the fair, if it even happened the way he claims. At that first kiss she might not become his forever. Once she got on that airplane, she might have forgotten all about him. The title phrase Defying Gravity is used as a promise of love’s power: baby, we’ll defy gravity together. It could just as well apply to the relationship between his romantic visions and the actual mechanics of love. Either way, it definitely applies to the music, which emulates hope and mirage equally.
The final song, “Thank You”, represents a break from that version of the album. It has been announced as Urban’s heartfelt expression towards his wife, Nicole Kidman, and his apology for past mistakes. That could be why it feels out of step with the rest of the album, which never seems to be about the actual life of our world-famous musician. Then again, the very notion of a celebrity couple comes cloaked in fairytale, so maybe it fits into Defying Gravity more naturally than its heart-baring demeanor and acknowledgement of a relationship’s trials suggest.
“Sweet Thing”, the first single, is the album’s most efficient and complete rendition of the fantasy of love. Make-believe seems woven into the music. Breezy and shimmering, it’s the most vacation-like song on the album. After the first couple listens, before the words have sunk in and before the song has won you over, you find yourself humming the tune in the grocery store or the shower, fumbling your way through it: “sweet thing, dah dah dah dah do dee dee dee dee, sweet thing.” When the words really sink in, the story of the song reveals itself to be a mid-date fantasy, built on the same memories and aspirations that drive the album.
The song begins on a first date, our singer picking up a woman in his car for the first time. The next thing you know, he’s taken a leap into a memory or dream. He’s a lovelorn youth again, a would-be Romeo. He jumps out of bed and drives to her house in the middle of the night, because he has to see her. He’s under her window, asking her to come down while everyone else is asleep. Meet him under the cottonwood trees, they’ll kiss on a porch swing. “Tell me I’m not dreaming!”, he sings, but of course he is, and he doesn’t want to know it. He’s fallen under the spell of love’s promise once again. He’s getting ahead of himself. He’s defying gravity.