The Aussie pop-country crooner alternately plays it safe and stretches his musical boundaries on his latest, chart-topping release.
Listening to Keith Urban's latest album, Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing, it's remarkable how the rest of the world seems to know what Americans like better than Americans themselves. A native New Zealander by way of Australia, Keith Urban is reminiscent of yet another non-"red state" resident, Anne Murray. Like a male Murray -- Canada's first country mega-star in the United States -- Urban possesses a clean, sweet-sounding voice that brims with country, pop, and adult-contemporary crossover appeal.
With country music standing as arguably the most popular and best-selling genre going today, acts like Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flats, and the ubiquitous Dixie Chicks are among those whose influence extends beyond its sphere and into the realm of more mainstream, pop radio hits. Keith Urban more than fits this mold, making history with his latest single, "Once in a Lifetime" becoming the highest-debuting country single on Billboard's country charts in August of 2006. The previous record-holder was another crossover giant, Garth Brooks, who in the 1990s led the charge of country's resurgence to the forefront of previously uninitiated mainstream listeners. This is not your grandpappy's country.
As Beavis and Butthead once lamented, "Whatever happened to songs about whiskey drinkin' and butt kickin?'", there is little in the way of either on Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing. Exemplary of the new breed of country, Keith Urban's take is very likeable and easily-accessible to a more global audience as opposed to the seemingly more confederate contingent of spectrum.
Showcasing the new country's more sensitive side, Urban's rendition of the Sarah Buxton-penned "Stupid Boy" contains feminist overtones worthy of the aforementioned Dixie Chicks. Urban's earnest voice pleasantly surprises, managing to convey the vulnerability hinted at by the song's lyrics, taking a stand for women whose dreams have been buried by the (perhaps unknowingly possessive) men in their lives. Kicking in elements of both rock and bluegrass, the "Stupid Boy" works well on a number of levels, even if it seems to point a finger at a stereotypical male country fan. Considering the composition isn't one of Keith Urban's own, yet it resonated enough for him to want to record, it's hard not to wonder if this is how the rest of the world views not only Americans but fans of American country music.
The closest thing to a traditional American country song is Urban's duet with Ronnie Dunn (of Brooks and Dunn fame), "Raise the Barn". The different vocal styles of the two men mesh well together with Keith's mellifluous vocals taking center stage and Dunn lending twangy harmonies to the mix. Besides having to suppress a snicker at Urban voicing the lyric, "Ain't nothing gonna stop this Southern pride", the track delivers a nice change of pace from the album's dreamier fare.
As for the album's chartbuster itself, "Once in a Lifetime" is definitely radio-friendly and could share a bunk with Bon Jovi's latest reinvention, "Who Says You Can't Go Home". Like getting the proverbial "your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter", the title track is indicative of the rest of the album and is pure pop mixed with country.
The more melodic and poppy songs that dominate the album show off Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing's strong suit: Keith Urban's appealing vocals. Even if some of the tracks may be unremarkable, Urban's clean and beautiful voice elevates them above a level of mediocrity, making the hum-drum surprisingly pleasant.
Make no mistake about it, while Urban's voice is certainly lovely, there are some songs it can't save from reeking of the overly familiar. "I Can't Stop Loving You" is one of those songs that you could swear you've heard somewhere before and sing along with for a few bars before tuning the dial to find something a lot more exciting.
While Urban's vocals are undoubtedly the disc's ace in the whole, musically, the disc has several stand-out moments that travel into experimental territory at times, especially considering how traditionally "safe" crossover music can usually be.
"I Told You So" starts off sounding like Men at Work's "Down Under", perhaps a nod to Urban's Aussie roots. The song kicks up its heels soon after the intro with a touch of not only country, but Celtic fiddling before kicking in with hard, rock style beats leading into a melodic bridge.
Another interesting composition, "Faster Car" sounds vaguely like something off of The Killers first album with its lo-fi, mono intro and harmonies throughout. A risky venture, "Faster Car" subtly and effectively blends several different flavors together from a bursting horn section to guitars and harmonies with a Cheap Trick-esque bounce merged with the unmistakable twang of country. It's evident that Urban (who co-produced with Dann Huff) knows his stuff. You have to give the guy credit for sneaking in more edgy material to listeners, adding a new dimension to the country/pop crossover field. Ambient Country has a nice ring to it.
While Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, in terms of quality and longevity, remain the eagle standard of country music having reached out to new listeners beyond what is often misperceived as a certain demographic, Keith Urban brings a greater audience into the neo-country fold, slowly melting the demarcated distinctions of what a given style of music should be. If Urban's brand of country-pop can stand the test of time remains to be seen. Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing, will certainly gain Urban new fans with its safety net of sweet ballads and radio-friendly songs, yet the album still affords him the ability to have a little fun and take a few risks on a number of the tracks.