17 February 2007

let's get {u} into this co ntry

"i've got a U-shaped hole inside me/it gets deeper by the day," says keith rban, country-music-star-turned-celebrity-husband. n.b. that, evidently, the hole is not U-sized, as presumably your size is reasonably constant.

so i kind of can't stop listening to this keith urban album.

er, this one:
which "crazy" thing was that again? actually, this might have been an appropriate title for a concept album about gnarles barkley (which would surely be more interesting than st. elsewhere.) as it happens, the emphasis is very strongly on the first item in that list: above all else, this album's most salient quality is that it is vehemently, brazenly, wholeheartedly in love. crazy in love, you might say. that's probably why i wanted to write about it on valentine's day.

there is one song called "used to the pain," but the pain in question turns out to be that of "givin' in to love," so it's sort of a red herring. otherwise, apart from the handwringing, backwards-looking "stupid boy" [the only lyric on the album in past tense - and, notably , one of the few not written by urban] and "raise the barn" [a southern pride anthem, but of the anti-bush variety ("the boss man don't seem to care"), whose list of red-state institutions includes dixie cups, paper plates, and what's apparently referred to as the "cotton-eyed joe"), every single song on here is dedicated expressly to explaining just how much keith loves you, wants you, needs you, is going to take care of you and support you and not let you down, etc. etc.

and, you know, he's earnest and ardent and reverent and self-confident, but he's also sensitive and considerate and clearly has a sense of humor and knows how to have fun... and basically he's just so big and strong and compassionate and manly, gosh, he kinds of makes me feel like a teenaged girl. of course, unfortunately (for that girl) (or maybe not), "you" in this case is not actually you, but nicole, or as the liner thanks put it: "my wonderful wife - you brought out the sun and the colors and you are SO love - can you hear it? you resonate through my heart and this album. joyous spirits chasing butterflies are we." awwwwwwwww!

point being, i guess, that this is easily the most thematically unified album i've listened to since, well, paris. which is exciting for the albumist in me. and also it's refreshing to hear someone who's so unabashedly happy and self-assured about love, and keith makes it convincing and genuinely moving; partly because of his acknowledgment of light and dark shadings, but largely because of the dogged consistency of his theme, no matter how brilliantly unsubtle and over-the-top it admittedly is.

of course, all of this is so effective because it's evident not just in the lyrics, and the vocal delivery, but in the music itself, which is similarly, fittingly, passionate, earnest, dynamic, often bombastic, frequently playful, and just plain great enough to make you want to believe anything he says. i've almost forgotten to mention that this a mainstream pop-country album, for whatever that tells you; it's also the first such album i've ever paid attention to, much less loved. so i can't speak from experience for the rest of the genre, but i can say that while melodramatic lyrical sentiment and music to match are perhaps to be expected, here at least they absolutely feel earned - which is to say, i guess, not entirely melodramatic.

it's hard to discuss this record in terms of country music, not just because i'm pretty unfamiliar with modern country (though obviously not with its reputation in various circles), but because it doesn't sound especially country to me. i'd say its most pronounced country attributes are its glossy, big-sounding production values and an occasional, slight twang in urban's voice. there are some fiddles and pedal steels and whatnot, and some of the songs have more typically country grooves - but none of that is any more overt than on plenty of "rock" albums. ryan adam's gold comes to mind, for instance, as a more strongly country-sounding album (and that's far from adam's most country-influenced album.)

the observation that (at least some) modern country is just mildly inflected pop-rock is not news. nor does it bother me - indeed, the idea that nashville has become a refuge for rock songwriters no longer relevant to the rest of the pop milieu makes the notion of getting further into country all the more intriguing. it seems evident that at this point "country" is defined more significantly by its consolidated artistic community than by its musical characteristics (and also, of course, as a marketing category) - but that's also something i don't know much about. (though it's a very familiar trope; artists being categorized by social position rather than music.)

all i can say for now is that this album has huge pop hooks and big rock guitars and varied, inventive production, and as much emotional heft as pretty much anything. lead single/opening track/exhibit a "once in a lifetime" is a straight-up power-pop nugget that should make frank kogan stop saying that john shanks does all of his best work with ashlee and lindsay (if things were different, i'd suggest that mr. shanks put keith in touch with ash, who last i heard was looking for someone to catch her when she falls.) the first six tracks are solid rock gold - then there's the brooding ballad "stupid boy," the album's lengthy centerpiece and biggest single to date (though one of the least interesting cuts, to my mind.)

in the latter portion things get even more varied (and somewhat more country), with the slightly creepy anthem "god made woman," which starts with a choir (thom jurek says it "celebrates -- not objectifies -- women" - i'm not quite convinced that it's not doing both) and the groovy two-step "tu compañia" (which is not actually latin-flavored, though it tricks me into thinking that - even though there's nothing in the lyric to suggest this, i imagine it as being adressed a different woman from the rest of the album...but that's just not possible, now is it?)

my favorite tracks, the ones that have been constantly rotating in my head for a few weeks now, are "faster car" - the album's funkiest and most rocking moment and possibly its best pop chorus - the driving "i told you so" (as in "i won't say..."), whose rhythmic cadence, especially in the big stompy bits after choruses, makes me think of talking heads' "road to nowhere" (even though it's probably supposed to make me think of celtic jigs), and the sweepingly romantic "i won't let you down." that one's on the mix:

11 i won't let you down Y keith urban

it has my favorite single moment on the album, the break-down-and-build-back-up after the bridge (starting at 2:41, or 37:26 on the mincecast), when the huge production gives way to just bells and plinky piano under the beginning of the chorus hook, and then the rock band bursts back in. i can't hear it without thinking of jon brion.

okay, i think i've gushed enough. i still don't quite know what to make of the way this album has clearly struck a chord with me. obviously one thing it suggests is that i ought to explore contemporary country further, as i would like to do and had already intended to get around to at some point. i'm just not sure where to go next, exactly. also i'm a little worried that i won't find anything to live up to this - thom jurek (who's clearly as excited by this album as i am) calls it "something that hasn't been heard in the country genre in this way before." but, you know. i'll figure it out. here's another picture:

No comments: