Keith Urban has released eight albums since he broke onto the American country music scene with his 1999 self-titled album.
His music has evolved considerably over that span, going from the frequently acoustic, pop accented — and fairly conventional — country sound of that first solo album to the far more diverse, genre-blurring and rather synthetic sound of his current release, “Ripcord” — an album that has many observers seeing Urban as the most musically adventurous of today’s arena-filling top tier of country stars.
But you won’t hear Urban sound at all dismissive of his early albums, even though his vocals are about the only thing that tie his earliest and his latest music together.
Placeholders in time
To Urban, every album has been exactly what he intended — reflecting where he was in terms of musical interests and his songwriting at that time.
“I can look back at all the albums I’ve made (including a 1991 effort he released in his homeland of Australia in 1991), and every one of them is very much a snapshot of where I was at that time in my life and the music I was listening to, the kind of music I was around and the way I wrote songs and the kind of racket I wanted to make once I got into the studio,” Urban said. “So, I don’t really look back and sort of cringe at any of those records because I go well, that’s just where I was,” he said. “That was me. That was just where I was in my life at that point.”
Once again, Urban said, he came into “Ripcord” with a good idea of the sound he was chasing — and it wasn’t just country. In particular, he wanted rhythm to be a stronger presence than ever in his music.
“I think this record became more rhythmic,” Urban said. “My dad passed away last year. He was a drummer. I think that drumming influence, rhythmic influence, is something that’s always been there. I think on this record, it started to drive the record a lot more. The thing that’s very consistent in all of these songs, probably more than genre, is a very strong rhythmic sense. ‘The Fighter’ is one. ‘Sun Don’t Let Me Down’ is another one. But even ‘Wasted Time’ and ‘John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16’ (both mid-tempo tunes) are very strong rhythmic songs.”
Pop, hip-hop sound
To that end, while there is some country (“Break On Me” and “Boy Gets A Truck” are prime examples), much of “Ripcord” pushes well toward pop and hip-hop in its sound and production. “Wasted Time” is built around a synthesizer sequence and a perky programmed rhythm track, while “Sun Don’t Let Me Down” has a big danceable groove, hooky pop chorus and even a guest rap from Pitbull. “The Fighter” (which features guest vocals by Carrie Underwood) has a little vintage Motown in its upbeat groove and sunny pop melody. Even the banjo-accented “Gone Tomorrow (Here Today)” has a percolating bass line, steady beat and rock guitar and synthesizer flourishes.
There was a time when an album that is easily as much pop as it is country would have drawn fire from some in the country world as a money-grabbing attempt to cross over to pop. That isn’t happening with “Ripcord,” and to Urban, the album simply follows a long tradition within the genre.
“Country’s history is full to the brim of songs that were crossing over to the pop realm, certainly since the late ’50s,” he said. “Incorporating pop elements into country has been happening since the late ’50s. So you know, nothing has changed. It’s just back then, the country purists were outraged at Chet Atkins for putting a string section on a country record. They would say he replaced the fiddle with violins to appeal to a more city audience. They got rid of the pedal steel and they put on piano and other sort of ‘countrypolitan’ sounding instruments.
“So, I always look at it in terms of what would be the string section of today’s equivalent. It would be drum machines. It would be synthesizers,” Urban said. “We’re just using other colors to paint with.”
Positive response from fans
Fans certainly like what Urban is doing. “Ripcord,” which debuted at No. 4 on the all-genre “Billboard” magazine Top 200 album chart upon its release in May, has been well received by critics and so far has produced two No. 1 Country Airplay singles (“Break on Me” and “Wasted Time”) as well as a No. 2 single in “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.” That puts it in line with Urban’s 2013 release, “Fuse,” which topped the Top 200 album chart and generated four No. 1 country singles.
Urban is seeing his popularity translate to his touring business.
“I can tell you right now, it’s been interesting watching the change over the last several years, where the new albums seem to have brought in a whole bunch of new people that don’t know any of the earlier material,” Urban said. “We’d be on the stage singing songs from even four records ago, and you can tell they don’t know those songs. They know all of the new songs. It’s interesting watching that happen.”
Urban sees several factors helping him reach so many new fans. The popularity of “Ripcord,” “Fuse” and his 2010 album, “Get Closer,” is certainly part of it. But Urban’s four-season stint as a judge on “American Idol” put him in front of a national television audience and his marriage to actress Nicole Kidman has made him a regular in tabloids and on social media.
“It’s a combination of things,” he said. “I think the ‘Fuse’ album was a very, for me it was a new chapter. I went into the studio very focused on creating a new chapter in my life musically, and the album preceding that, which was ‘Get Closer,’ I really feel, was a bookend album to that. It was sort of the end of that part of my career. And ‘Fuse’ was like the first album of the next phase. Of course, it coincided with being on ‘American Idol.’ It coincided with just a lot of things happening musically at the time — obviously, the explosion of the internet, people discovering music through streaming, in addition to radio play. So, I think everything coincided with the right record at the right time and it brought a whole new audience. And ‘Ripcord’ is just the next progression on from that.”
His shows on his current amphitheater and arena tour figure to lean toward more recent songs, and Urban isn’t just sticking to his 20 chart-topping singles to make up his set list.
“I’m certainly not focusing on just the No. 1s. There are plenty of them that are getting left off of the set list,” Urban said. “Some of them just due to the fact that there are new songs that have more strength and are just a better fit into the set list, really. But we tinker with the set list quite a bit, so I feel like we’ve got it into a good place. But this tour seems to be a little bit malleable with the songs from night to night, obviously not all of them. But we’re slipping certain songs in and out on certain nights, so there’s a little bit of change going on.”