If giving a new Keith Urban album a listen isn’t on your to-do list because, well, you’re just not a country fan, here’s a little secret – he’s not really a country artist. At least not these days.
Yes, Urban’s earliest work may have been more rooted in a country sound. And sure, he came up through the Nashville scene and is still based there. There’s also that hard-to-argue fact that he’s always been exclusively branded and marketed as a country artist, even now.
But if you go back through his catalog of 11 studio albums, you’ll find the country/pop/rock hybrid sound that defined his output up until the past few years has shifted dramatically. 2016’s Ripcordmarked an audacious step forward in terms of Urban’s musical experimentation with a more modern pop style, along with an occasional foray into R&B territory.
On Graffiti U, his newest release, Urban comfortably continues to explore some of the unpredictable musical avenues he’s been heading down with each successive album release, while still retaining many of the core elements that got him to where he is. It’s a shame Urban’s desire for poppier songs comes at the expense of letting his guitar talent shine as frequently as it has on past albums, however. That’s another fact that may surprise those who aren’t very familiar with the musician – Urban has absolutely monster guitar skills.
Opening track “Coming Home” shows Urban hasn’t completely abandoned his country roots. A banjo complements the guitar tracks and the song samples a riff from Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried”. Make no mistake, though, this is a pop track, through and through (the accompanying vocals from songwriter/pop singer Julia Michaels help to cement that fact). The bass-heavy “Never Comin’ Down” shows Urban combining funky verses with the kind of rousing arena-ready choruses his fans know well. A melodic bass guitar riff also propels the upbeat “Drop Top”, a song about a free-spirited woman that also gives Urban a chance to work in one of his most oft-used subjects – cars and driving.
The two Graffiti U tracks that adhere most to the kind of sound Urban is perhaps best known for (mid-tempo songs with a great hook) are the excellent “Same Heart” and “Horses”. He also has a long track record with including at least a couple of well-crafted ballads on each album and his latest release is no exception. The soulful “Parallel Line” and “Way Too Long” capably fulfill that requirement here.
The album’s best song is “Female”, which happens to feature Nicole Kidman, Urban’s wife, on background vocals. It’s hard to find much fault with its tasteful musical arrangement that’s highlighted by Urban’s spare, bluesy guitar lines. It’s the song’s lyrics that have drawn the most attention, however. “Female” was first unveiled back in early November, just a few weeks into the #MeToo movement. Some eyebrows were raised with what was perceived to be a patronizing tone in the lyrics that are meant to celebrate women. I personally think it’s much ado about nothing and it bears mentioning that a woman (Nicolle Galyon) co-wrote the song.
Admittedly, Urban undercuts his feminist message somewhat a few songs prior to “Female” with “Gemini”. Whereas the synth-heavy track sounds like it’s right out of the 80s, the cringy “She’s a maniac in the bed, but a brainiac in her head” line feels like it time-warped from the 40s or 50s when men were even less inclined to think a woman’s sexuality and smarts couldn’t co-exist. The song does a lot of things right, though, especially the extended guitar solo at the end that sounds like a clear homage to Thriller-era Michael Jackson in both guitar tone and style. Urban also channels the 80s with some two-handed tapping on Graffiti U’s only other guitar showcase, closing track “Steal My Thunder”.
Calling Graffiti U a heavily collaborative effort would be an understatement. There’s a veritable small army of personnel involved here, including 18 – count ’em, 18 – producers credited (including Urban) for the album’s 13 full tracks. Nearly all the co-producers do double-duty as songwriters as well, in addition to a number of strictly songwriters contributing to the tracks. It’s a formula that doesn’t always work. “My Wave” is the latest in a long line of examples that show why white guys doing reggae is never a good idea. “Love The Way It Hurts (So Good)” just never catches a spark and “Texas Time” evokes the dull, too-laid-back vibe of Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do”.
Urban’s satisfaction with Ripcord’s results and its fan reception is obvious, if Graffiti U’s pop-centric collection of glossy songs is any indication. The album finds Urban continuing to take risks with his material, while still dipping just enough back into familiar territory to cater to longtime fans less inclined to adapt to the musician’s creative experimentation.
I give this album 4 out of 5