Monday, June 20, 2016

Keith Urban – Ripcord [album review]

Released on May 6th

Keith Urban may reside in Nashville, record for a country label, and tour with country acts. But aside from a little bit of banjo on his latest album and a heavy reliance on outside songwriters (a longstanding tradition from the genre that lowers my level of respect for it), there’s virtually nothing on Ripcord to justify referring to him nowadays as a “country artist”, as so many still seem to do. Classifications and labels for musical artists are a convenient way for us to convey to someone what a band or singer sounds like and I use them as well. Urban could be the poster boy for how limiting and downright inaccurate they can often be, however. It’s mildly annoyed me for years, as most of his musical output in the past decade has consisted of songs that are overwhelmingly rock and pop-based, with only a modest quotient of country involved in the mix.

Not unlike Taylor Swift on her last few albums, Urban’s most recent outings have moved further from his country-based early career work into pop territory, with consistently strong results. Ripcord, his tenth studio album, is made up of 13 tracks comprising a blend of the comfortably familiar and a few new sonic textures and creative choices that are initially a bit jarring, but ultimately largely satisfying. The release strategy for Ripcord’s singles are a real head-scratcher, though: lead single “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” was released 11 months before the album came out, followed by a couple more single releases before the album got into fans’ hands.

Opener “Gone Tomorrow (Here Today)” is an instantly intriguing piece of work that foreshadows Ripcord’s more experimental tone. A slick banjo lick melds with a repeating funky staccato bass pattern that uses only two notes throughout the track, laying a great foundation for the song. The intricate banjo part surprisingly (and disappointingly) represents the fanciest stringed instrument work on the album from six-string wiz Urban (more on that later). It’s also one of Ripcord’s very few uses of a country sound and even then, Urban plays the banjo part in a minor key that gives it a distinct Indian music flavour. Ballad “Habit Of You” overcomes its rather dubious lyrical premise to deliver one of Urban’s prettiest ballads yet. Since Urban didn’t write it (he’s only credited on five of Ripcord’s tracks), we’ll blame writers K-Kov and Jackson Morgan for the song’s hacky metaphor of being addicted to a woman (“Maybe I’m an addict but I just gotta have it/I just gotta have you”) as a replacement for the protagonist’s old drinking and smoking vices. Despite the lyrical missteps, the strongly R&B-influenced song exhibits a deeply soulful sound that I haven’t heard from Urban before and he acquits himself exceptionally well.

“Sun Don’t Let Me Down” presents the album’s biggest challenge to Urban’s audience. Nile Rogers adds some slinky guitar and slick production to the groove-heavy track, while bass guitar legend Pino Palladino puts down a powerfully funky bottom end. Almost everything about the song, including Urban’s witty and fun lyrics about needing more time to “close the deal” romantically with his girl, works exquisitely. Unfortunately, rapper Pitbull shows up in the intro and about halfway through the song, spouting trashy lines like “Tonight we’re gettin’ hammered, banged up, and tanked” and “Mommy wanna play the adult version of Truth Or Dare/So I took her to the back and pull her hair, yeah!”. Ugh. His awful contributions don’t completely ruin the song, but they do notably detract from it. Another guest artist whose appearance is most certainly not a negative is Carrie Underwood on “The Fighter”, an excellent hook-heavy duet that may be Urban’s poppiest song to date. Its closest competition might be “Your Body”, which uses an electro-pop sound right out of the 80s (and bears a striking similarity to Swift’s “Style”). The only obvious musical risk on Ripcord that fails to work is “Blue Ain’t Your Color”, a waltzing ballad that isn’t terrible, but does stand out as the album’s weak link.

My biggest shock with Ripcord wasn’t the expeditions into foreign musical territories — it’s the severely diminished presence of Urban’s guitars. Rhythm guitars that would normally occupy a prominent spot in the sound mix are pushed further to the background. As far as guitar solos, a staple of Urban’s music that let him showcase his exemplary chops, well, they’re in surprisingly short supply. There’s just a couple, plus a brief banjo solo on “Wasted Time” and they’re very much restrained by the musician’s standards. As disappointed as I was with the lack of solos, I do respect the incredibly ballsy move by Urban to holster his biggest talent as a means of presenting his material in a different light and keeping Ripcord’s songs a little more concise (none of the tracks exceeds the four minute mark).

The rest of the album’s songs are fairly standard-sounding Urban (which I mean as a compliment), although with a slightly heavier reliance on pop-friendly programmed percussion tracks and drum loops in place of a standard drum kit sound. “Wasted Time”, “Gettin’ In The Way”, “Boy Gets A Truck”, “Worry About Nothin’”, and “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” rank as the best of this bunch, although the latter’s Americana overdose in the lyrics is a bit much. One last impression I was left with after digesting the album for the past several weeks are the very tiresome and repetitive lyrical ideas and imagery that drag Ripcord down somewhat. Car references have long been a staple of Urban’s songs and he goes back to that well too many times here. We have a car parked in the driveway, a car “flying down a two-lane”, three different songs where Urban sings about romance in the car (he’s really exhausted that one over the past few albums), and, of course, a truck in a song title. I get that he’s trying to be relatable to a mostly American audience that appreciates that kind of thing, but it’s getting really old at this point.

Ripcord has its fair share of flaws, but there’s quite a lot to like on an album that finds Urban pushing his musical boundaries in an increasingly intriguing direction. Although time will tell, Ripcord seems like a good bet to be looked back at as a real creative turning point in Urban’s career.

Rating: B

Related posts: my July 2009 review of Urban’s Defying Gravity album, my October 2009 review of Urban’s Toronto show on his Escape Together World Tour, and my September 2011 review of the Toronto show on Urban’s Get Closer World Tour

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