Keith Urban is a 48-year-old student of the game (popular music). This album is his playground. He’s trying out various things -- adapting -- while staying very much the same.
Rhythm is a driving force behind Keith Urban's eighth album Ripcord, and his music in general -- as recently illuminated by Jewly Hight's great interview with Urban for npr.org. That piece places rhythm as an element of continuity within Urban's musical progression, and sets Ripcord in that context.
It's a sensible place to begin when it comes to Ripcord, though there are others. Some other contexts in which to place the album: the development of Urban's theories on time (mainly that it's always disappearing); Urban experimenting with his approach to singing (often in a sly sort of imitation of current R&B and pop superstars); the continual if unspoken creative back-and-forth between Urban and Taylor Swift... or, for that matter, between Urban and commercial country/pop superstars in general, of which Swift stands at a certain nexus.
Take Thomas Rhett and Brett Eldredge, for instance, and the ways their 2015 albums poked their way into disco through commercial country. To start thinking of Ripcord in the context of country-disco, jump right to "Sun Don't Let Me Down", which rides a light funk riff from Nile Rodgers, features a guest rap from Pitbull (a typically naughty one within a universal demeanor), and includes a line I keep misinterpreting as being about hipsters on fire. I think it's actually "her hips are on fire", maybe more appropriate for disco and for a song about how all the best things happen at night, how daylight can be the enemy.
Or better yet, head to "The Fighter", a duet with Carrie Underwood that's probably the closest Urban's ever come to a danceclub banger. It's typically Urbanesque romantic fantasy that paints romantic pursuits as larger-than-life struggles of survival, but it's also incredibly light on its feet and giddy. Urban's out to sooth a woman's doubts, yet listening to him glide over a dance groove, it's hard not to picture him in a leisure suit under a disco ball and wonder if he should be trusted.
Urban is a 48-year-old student of the game (popular music). This album is his playground, and represents the fruits of learning from others. He's trying out various things -- adapting -- while staying very much the same.
The album opens with one of his typical vaguely bluesy barnstormer tracks, the type where he's trying to "rock" in a high-energy way. Except "Gone Tomorrow (Here Today)" isn't all that typical, considering after the opening little banjo (or ganjo, technically) thing that Urban plays, there's a more electronic base that moves in to support Urban's rock-ish carpe diem cries. It's easy to miss how preachy the song is, and how that preachiness seems to rise from the gut, from grief.
That song makes a strong impression and then is gone, appropriately so. It's musically less interesting to me than some of the deeper cuts, including love ballads that aren't really ballads (the makeout scene "Gettin' in the Way", another fighting-against-the-clock scenario) and songs that veer towards tradition but not really ("Blue Ain't Your Color", a classic jukebox song set in a bar, yet still with programmed drums).
Someone should study Urban's singing on this album, as he tries some unexpected approaches I haven't heard him attempt before. See "Habit of You", "That Could Still Be Us" and "Boy Gets a Truck", for starters. His voice is sometimes softer, sometimes smoother, sometimes funkier (or more in tune with the changing rhythms), sometimes like he's purposely trying to rid himself of his usual vocal idiosyncrasies. All of those are the case with "Habit of You", a would-be pop or R&B ballad about replacing one addiction with another. His singing here is an appropriate mix of patience and a dreamy sense of determination, which at the end leads to a kind of manic/joyful breakdown.
On that song and elsewhere he's shameless and sincere about inhabiting cliches as if he's forgotten that they're cliches, or doesn't care. The songwriters behind the album's first single, "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16" -- Shane McAnally, Ross Copperman and Josh Osborne -- take a chorus that could easily seem like pandering to a stereotypical country audience and surround it with clever little metaphors that sound less clunky in Urban's hands that they seem like they should.
The idea behind "Wasted Time", the latest single, is perhaps even more familiar. On a rainy day, a man looks at a photo and reminisces about his carefree younger days, when time was free for the wasting. They'd sneak out of bedroom windows to spend the day swinging over the creek on the proverbial swingin' rope, sipping on Four Loko while sundresses dry on the car hood, with Guns ‘N' Roses blaring loudly from the one working speaker (the left one). The pleasure here lives in those details, and how they're wedded to kind of a futuristic country glide/stomp that's trying so hard to get listeners to throw their hands in the air and scream along. There's also a hoedown moment near the end, before the big singalong moment; he's hitting all the buttons. At the end, at the fade, he asks, perhaps rhetorically, "Don't you feel it coming on back now?" -- hoping the memories are inspiring more memories or birthing a new version of these moments into reality.
"Wasted Time", and much of Ripcord, falls thematically right in line with Urban's body of work -- he's spent a whole lot of time singing about days, hours, seasons and years slipping by before you know it. He loads those disappearing minutes with melancholy, naturally, but as often finds pleasure in the act of dreaming and fantasizing about time that's passed, is passing, or will pass. On Ripcord, time's always slipping away, and that's exciting. That excitement is kin to the grooves and rhythmic tricks propelling the album.
That said, the album ends with a purposeful pause. "Worry 'Bout Nothin'" moves quickly, but its protagonists do not. In love they've found the respite from the ticking clock. The album ends with sheer pleasure: "the way that you and the smoke and the whiskey blend / ain't never ever gonna worry ‘bout nothin' again". For a moment, everyone's forgetting about the fact that this moment, too, will be gone before you know it. Yet we all know the moment is all fantasy. The song is loaded with fantasy and the pleasure of it, from skinny dippin' to being half-drunk to the way a solitary streetlight shines on an empty street in a disappearing town. That's Ripcord: fantasy built around awareness of the folly of fantasy. As Urban sings on the first song, "we get to choose what we wanna believe."