You have to give credit to Keith Urban. He has got a canny awareness of what it takes to make a hit record in today’s musical climate. Maybe this comes through his recent deep involvement in reality TV talent shows, or maybe through his addiction to Shazam which he readily admits has ‘expanded [his] musical palette to draw from exponentially’. Whatever the cause, there is no doubt that on his latest album, ripCORD that he has tapped into the source of sure-fire high rotation radio hits once again. In doing so, whilst transcending most of the usual narrow range of Nashville lyrical and stylistic touchstones, he has managed to still stay firmly rooted in the signature sounds that have made him such a successful crossover artist in the U.S. and throughout the rest of the world.
Urban has called upon a broad range of musical talent to assist him this time around, most interestingly having Chic mastermind, Nile Rodgers, on board to sprinkle his hit-making magic over the project.
What results is a lushly produced suite of songs that only occasionally hints at boundary pushing, but regrettably, each time this occurs and piques the listener’s interest, Urban hesitates to go all out into these new directions, preferring to fall quickly back into formulaic modern country pop mode where he knows he can recapture the hearts of those open-mouthed, wide-eyed, swaying (mostly) female fans who always seem to feature in his promotional film clips and concert videos.
The album starts intriguingly and with no little amount of promise. The opening bars of ‘Gone Tomorrow (Here Today)’ sound enticingly similar to those of ‘The Bazaar’ by The Tea Party with its slightly Moroccan feel, and although this is not maintained throughout the track, it nevertheless does rouse some optimism that the album to follow may well live up to Urban’s claim that he is looking to make ‘something new and groundbreaking’ with this release.
The established hit ‘John Cougar, John Deere and John 3:16’ has already proven its chart bonafides, making it to number one in the U.S.
It is a very clever song and it establishes Urban’s blueprint for success. He strives to list as broad a range of pop culture iconography as he can in order to ensure he hooks as wide an audience as possible. The clever meshing of ‘everyman’ priorities in the song title is the key to its popularity – and it has to be said, it is an irresistible piece of country-pop confection.
In ‘Wasted Times’, however, whilst trying to repeat the pop reference trick by name-checking ‘Sweet Child Of Mine’, Urban fails to live up to the promise of the opening two tracks and the main failing of the album is soon made clear because Urban’s overarching philosophy becomes glaringly apparent here: if your main priority is album sales, never leave your comfort zone for too long.
‘Habit Of You’ is as uninspiring as its title – it’s a mawkish, bland number, indistinguishable from any of the manufactured production line pop that has dominated the charts of late.
It is now a tired but still widely used idea, to have a celebrity rapper interrupt the flow of a tune stylistically miles from rap, and rapidly spit out a few ineffectual lines of ‘urban poetry’ – obviously a very sensible idea financially though, as it creates an inroad into yet another market niche. Urban uses the trick in the slightly more upbeat ‘Sun Don’t Let Me Down’ which features rapper, Pitbull.
Urban finally gets the album back on track with ‘Getting In The Way’, an undeniably formulaic song, but one that is infuriatingly catchy at the same time and impeccably produced. Whilst there is no doubt unit-shifting has been a primary focus of the recording exercise here, the song is really quite clever and works well even though it does not really lure you into hitting the repeat button once it has finished.
‘Blue Is Not Your Colour’, however, is a drop dead gorgeous country song. From its opening with its pulsing string section rhythms, to the tasteful acoustic guitar flourishes contained throughout, it as an outright winner. It reminds us all that when Urban returns to songs with a high level of stylistic purity rather than those that see him dabbling in awkward genre hybridisation, he clearly deserves his place in the pantheon of modern country superstars.
Carrie Underwood is touring Australia with Urban later in the year, so it comes as no surprise that there is a duet shared with her that is included on the album. The song is a disaster though, it is a by-the–numbers vapid piece, heavily reliant on a monotonous dance beat and it never really knows what it is, or where it is going. It should not have made the cut.
‘Break On Me’ is another safe ballad that goes nowhere but certainly has a very apt ending where it just literally dies as if the band just gave up on it as a bad idea.
But all is not lost – ‘Boy Gets A Truck’ is pure undiluted country gold. This song is destined to rank up there alongside ‘Cats In The Cradle’ as a coming of age classic. It details a boy growing until he reaches driving age where he gets his first ute and subsequently goes off to pick up his girl, told through the eyes of his wistful father. This is working class man heartstring pulling nirvana, tapping into the mainstream values of the moral majority. It will undoubtedly be a monster at his concerts when it comes to communal sing-alongs.
The remainder of the album is hardly ‘groundbreaking’ however – ‘Your Body’ (‘whenever my body is touching your body…’) is cringeworthy; ‘That Could Still Be Us’ is a lightweight lighter waving ballad; and the final track, ‘Worry ‘Bout Nothin’, is a surprisingly lacklustre mid-paced closer that, whilst striving to be anthemic, only comes off as half-baked.
To sum up, this album will inevitably sell by the truckload because, when it is playing in the background, it sounds great. People will hum and tap their feet to it whilst they are busy doing other things. When people have had a few drinks, they may even find themselves tearily staring into the eyes of their significant others and loudly singing along in places. However, when you attune yourself to actually listening you cannot escape the fact that this is merely product, not art.
RipCORD is out Friday 5th May through EMI.
Reviewed by Ken Grady