Love, Pain, & the Whole Crazy Thing

Keith Urban

As the title says, there’s plenty of love on Keith Urban’s fourth album, and as for ”the whole crazy thing,” that category is more than covered by ”Raise the Barn,” the singer’s whooping hoedown of a duet with Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn. But pain is Urban’s specialty. It’s etched in his vocal quaver, in his guitar leads that surge over minor chords, and in the lyrics of, well, ”Used to the Pain.” And it creeps into the seemingly upbeat material. Songs like ”Shine” spend far less time celebrating romance than they do mooning over the anguish — ”When the sun is hard to find/When it’s raining in your eyes/When the shadows block those pretty little blue skies” — from which love provides a temporary respite. It is tempting to ascribe Urban’s dolorous streak to his well-publicized battles with substance abuse. (In October, just four months after his marriage to Nicole Kidman, he checked himself into a rehab center.) But it’s also clearly good business: Urban has been topping the country charts with this kind of wallowing, melodramatic stuff for half a decade now.

Urban is a country star, but his music owes at least as much to rock. You can hear fiddle and banjo amid the crashing chords in ”I Told You,” and the ballads are accented with old-fashioned high-lonesome Dobro fills. But there are also subtle electronic touches, heavy backbeats, and lots of loud guitars, including excellent, understated lead work by Urban, a superb player. Anyone wondering where mainstream pop-rock went when hip-hop and grunge stormed the charts need only look to Urban. ”Once in a Lifetime,” his current hit, is as sleek and catchy as anything on rock radio — and the guitar playing is better. Urban has a flexible tenor voice, with just a hint of rasp in it; he excels at singing ballads, gravitating to the kind of tuneful MOR fare that made Phil Collins a huge star in the ’80s. Sure enough, Love, Pain & the whole crazy thing includes a cover of ”I Can’t Stop Loving You,” a hit for Collins in 2002.

And therein may lie the problem. Like Collins, Urban is a true pro who makes crisp, seamlessly performed, expertly produced records — and like Collins, Urban is a bit blah. His albums leave no lasting impression and offer few surprises; the music stacks clichés on clichés, and the lyrics (most of them written or co-written by Urban) offer vague beatitudes instead of the delicious everyday details that fill the best country songs. By far the finest moment on the record is ”Raise the Barn,” when Ronnie Dunn sings about not love, not pain, but ”Dixie cups and paper plates/Fiddle tunes and ‘Amazing Grace.”’

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