What does Urban gain by working with Top 40 radio producers? Perhaps a lot, in theory, if the music pushed him far enough. But much less in practice.
In the wake of crossover pop/country success for younger acts like Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum, it isn’t a surprise that Keith Urban would try a little harder to push in a similar direction, by working with pop producers to light a new fuse in his music. It’s not surprising, but it does seem misguided, or at least unnecessary. Or perhaps a non-story, not the dramatic shift that the press about the album, Fuse, has described and that Urban seems to think the album is. (The press bio quotes him as saying, “I set out to make a different -sounding record, and in the process found myself in completely unfamiliar, and, at times, uncomfortable territory.”)
When Swift started pushing outwards towards the pop world (basically from her second album on), it was hard not to hear Urban’s best hits as an influence. That’s at least as true with hit singles for even newer acts like Gloriana. Basically he’s been at the forefront of exploring pop within the modern country sound, on hits like “Days Go By”, “Who Wouldn’t Want to Be Me”, and more. He already demonstrated how to take the most infectious qualities of ‘80s radio pop and integrate it with minor (perhaps very minor) elements of the country tradition. Love, Pain and the Whole Crazy Thing from 2006 brilliantly wove deep heartbreak into creative explorations of basic pop-rock single formats. I may be one of the few who thinks 2009’s Defying Gravity was a pop-rock masterpiece in contemporary country clothing, in part because of the perhaps unintended complexity in the songs, with narratives coming from more unusual, neurotic or even crazy places than the songs or Urban seemed to realize. The 2010 mini-album Get Closer seemed like a lightweight space-filler between albums, but some songs took the style of the previous albums to new levels of accessibility/immediacy, without losing some of the atmospheric and romantic complexity.
So with all of that mind, what does Urban gain by working with Top 40 radio producers? Perhaps a lot, in theory, if the music pushed him far enough. But Fuse sounds basically like all of the past few albums but with less guitar fireworks, more drum machines, more “oh oh oh” backing vocals, slightly more generic choruses and verses, and less moments where I’m surprised by something within the song. An attempt to get limitless and push beyond boundaries should by design be an album with moments of surprise, but everything instead seems surprisingly unsurprising. It often feels more antiquated than fresh.
The album has a purposely thinner sound, as if rounding everything out would be too rock or country. His singing voice seems thinner, too, to match. The singing does sometimes get heavier, but when it does (see “Love’s Poster Child”) it seems like an overt attempt to sync up with other currently popular artists (say, Jason Aldean). Urban still mainly sounds at ease, and possesses an always exceptional handle on melody. The opening track "Somewhere in My Car" takes a lot of familiar Urban tropes – looking back in fondness – and packs them in a nice-sounding single. The album ends with him doing something similar with his standard type of manly confessional ballad, if in a more ham-fisted way. But for all of the album’s supposed ambition, the songs don’t seem to be aiming too high.
“Shame” is kind of an obvious distillation of the hurt from Love, Pain and the Whole Crazy Thing down to some truisms (“Everyone hurts the same”). “Good Thing” tries to get enough of a groove going to distract us from the banality of the song’s come-on. “She’s My 11” taps into a common recent formula for radio hits – a litany of metaphors for how cozy and comfortable her love makes him feel. In the first single “Little Bit of Everything”, he offers an image to capture his idea of the album (a disco ball hanging on a tree limb by the creek) while also unveiling his limited goals and awkward attempts to be cool in one fell swoop – “I just want to sing a little chill song / Get my groove on.” Somehow that line instantly transforms him in my brain into an Oprah-watching middle-aged woman yelling “You go girl!” at the screen.
There are exceptions to the feeling that this is the same-old in slightly new clothes. “Come Back to Me” is a moody ballad that dives so strongly into the mood that, when put against the drum programming, it almost sounds like trip-hop. Somehow that also gives him a platform to sing more expressively than on much of the album. “Red Camaro” has enough of a groove going for it that the song almost begs for a rapper to come in as a guest star; alas, he’s not quite ready for that yet. He does, however, have time for Eric Church on “Raise ‘Em Up”. The song’s hungover mellowness plays to Church’s strengths (enough so to keep reminding me why Chief was more interesting than this album), but also lets Church and Urban interact comfortably. The same is true to a slightly lesser extent of “We Were Us”, featuring Miranda Lambert.
At the end of the day, it’s certain that Urban will do well by Fuse. It’ll generate some hits, it won’t confuse any of his listeners, and it might help fit some of his songs into non-country radio formats. It’ll match up nicely with his higher profile on American Idol, too, raising his overall name recognition perhaps. But is it taking him new places, lighting new fuses, expanding his horizons? To me it sounds more like a closed room than an open one. The video for “Little Bit of Everything” seems apropos for the disconnect that to me lives within Fuse, a disconnect between what Urban believes he’s doing and what I hear him doing. In the video he’s wandering in an enclosed dream world, shut off from the rest of the world. But man is he having fun.