Quite often, the narratives spun around new country albums by performers and their PR reps include references intended to do one of two things: hit a nostalgic sweet spot, or herald country authenticity. Sometimes both. Keith Urban clearly had a different game plan in mind when he invoked U2's Achtung Baby — musical shorthand for "artistic ambition" — during a round of pre-release interviews about his latest album, Fuse.
Offering U2's exercise in digital, danceable mind expansion as a lens through which to view the credits in his own liner notes was a pretty brilliant move on Urban's part. In the CD-sleeve small print, we'd find not only the name of his longtime producer Dann Huff, but seven others with whom Urban shares production credit — many of them most closely associated with cutting-edge pop-rock and hip-hop — and in the strategic breadth of that list we'd surely recognize the creative questing of a guy who still hadn't found what he was looking for.
Peruse enough Urban interviews from the past six months — including those conducted for Rolling Stone by the Scene's own Adam Gold — and you'll find the singer, songwriter and guitar-slinger offering insightful, exhilarated takes on the new sonic and conceptual ground broken by Kanye West, Lorde and Blood Orange last year. The fact that Urban is entering his second season as an American Idol judge — a gig that's become slightly more focused on technical expertise now that last season's sparring divas are gone and the staunchly anti-melisma Harry Connick Jr. is on board — no doubt helps keep his ears open. But by all indications, he'd be listening widely even if he didn't have to. With-it pop fan isn't just a role he plays on TV.
On the other hand, Urban is savvy about the comparatively modest pace of country music's adaptability. "Country is like a town, and you can't just waltz into the town wearing something no one else is wearing, speak like no one else is speaking with a hairstyle no one else has got, and expect that they'll embrace you," he told RS in December. "But country has an incredible history of knowing how to slowly absorb new elements to keep it evolving and moving at a particular pace that works for it."
Fuse, then, seems like Urban's attempt at harmony: comfortable, youthful romantic themes voiced through briskly produced, kaleidoscopic tracks. He had a very specific and very punchy production sound in mind — the blistering, programmed pop-punk of Fall Out Boy's "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark" — when he sought out the track's mastermind, Butch Walker, to help him record a smitten little tune called "Even the Stars Fall 4 U."
"It definitely didn't surprise me," Walker tells the Scene by phone, "because I'd seen a change coming in contemporary country music anyway. But I can say I was extremely pleased and excited that [Urban] reached out because of something I did, that was from a genre that he had nothing to do with. But I knew he was a fan of rock 'n' roll, so it didn't seem like a far stretch to me.
"The big thing is, [artists] like that stuff, and they indulge in it personally at home," Walker continues. "But when it comes time to make their own records, all the sudden all these factors come into play — of being scared of losing your fan base and alienating them with a different sound, you know, [the need to stay] safe enough or conservative enough that modern country music is plagued with. I liked the fact that he was willing and able to go out on a limb."
Himself a decorated veteran of melodic rock with half a dozen albums and a documentary under his own name — in addition to a slew of Avril Lavigne, P!nk and Panic! at the Disco writing and production credits — Walker recognized in Urban an adroit musical peer.
"Being a fellow shredder," says Walker, "I really enjoyed listening to him play. I would always see him play on these award shows and just be like, 'Man, this guy can rip it up when he wants to.' He could play like John Mayer, but without being annoying. I liked his voice, too. It wasn't too affected like a lot of current country is. ... When we got in a room together to work, it was instant. We were able to do stuff that impressed each other."
Between the two of them, Urban and Walker played or programmed every single part of the down-tempo electronic gem "Come Back to Me," an emotionally involved number by 2013 country songwriting MVPs Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark, along with Trevor Rosen. Walker's suggestion was, "What about this song being like an early Prince jam? Have it be no cymbal, no hi-hats; just this simple beat and bass and that's it?" And Urban was receptive.
"I liked that [Keith] would get excited immediately: 'Oh, I've never done that before. That's great. Let's do that.' "
When obdurate EDM beats are applied to any genre of music, there's a tendency for the singing and playing to fall rigidly in line. The effect might be forceful, but it's rarely even remotely funky. On Fuse, however, there's a light-footed feel to a bunch of the beat-driven tracks, thanks to Urban's nimble musicianship. During "Come Back to Me" and "Black Leather Jacket" (another Walker co-production), Urban's fluent vocal phrasing springs off the backbeat. And those sensibilities didn't just start showing up last year. A decade ago, his No. 1 single "Better Life" kicked off with a syncopated ganjo figure he positioned in frisky counterpoint to a drum machine loop.
"He has a great sense of rhythm," Walker says. "So it just naturally falls right into that place of where no matter what I'm doing, he's dancing around the beat with his phrasing and stuff, probably in a way that is very second-nature to him. Because I think that's always been strong on all of his records. ... I can't take much credit for what he does vocally in the studio, because he's got a really good handle on who he wants to be and what he wants to sound like. I just kinda lined him up and let him go."
John Mayer Bubblehead
I call this song, "Tryin' To Lick My Own Ear."
So that's why they call him rubber neck!
You should see my "Oh!" face.
Darrin Bradbury is hands down the best songwriter in Nashville. #RealTalk