Future Perfect 

The stubborn optimism in Keith Urban’s music is hard-earned and hard to resist

Keith Urban’s first-ever Greatest Hits album, released Nov. 20, is subtitled 18 Kids—a reference to that hoary cliché about artists considering songs their children.
Keith Urban’s first-ever Greatest Hits album, released Nov. 20, is subtitled 18 Kids—a reference to that hoary cliché about artists considering songs their children. It’s a shame that Sting already claimed Brand New Day a few years back, because that might make a better title: The phrase appears in no less than three songs in the track listing. “Once in a Lifetime,” “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me” and Urban’s current single, “Everybody,” all proffer the promise of a “brand new day.”

As Greatest Hits demonstrates by laying all of Urban’s 16 Top 10 Billboard country hits end to end (plus a couple of obligatory new tracks), this idea is by far Urban’s primary lyrical preoccupation. Almost all of the original songs on Greatest Hits take up the theme in one way or another—if Urban isn’t promising his partner a brighter tomorrow (“Better Life”), he’s suggesting that maybe today is better than we think it is (“Days Go By”). Urban argues repeatedly that happiness must be chased rather than waited upon, lest it escape our grasp.

The sentiment is typically married to music that amplifies its sense of rushing urgency and relentless optimism, a sleek contemporary-country thump typically goosed by jaunty banjo (or, more often, “ganjo”—a six-string banjo tuned like a guitar) and Urban’s blistering electric guitar work. Urban established that template on his breakthrough hit, 2002’s “Somebody Like You,” and he’s been working variations on it ever since. It’s a damn fine formula, one that splits the differences among country, rock and pop without dumbing down or bleaching out of any of the above.

Of course, hearing all these uptempo blasts of optimism months apart on the radio is one thing; hearing them all during the course of one 75-minute stretch is another. The discerning individual who can tell “Once in a Lifetime” from “You’re My Better Half” or “Everybody” from “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me” before the chorus kicks in is a more astute listener than am I. By the end of Greatest Hits, it’s difficult to ignore the nagging sensation that this is a well to which Urban the songwriter has returned a few times too often.

That relatively minor sin is mitigated by Urban’s exquisite taste in cover songs. As his popularity has grown since the turn of the millennium, so has his ability to force some surprisingly idiosyncratic and complex material into heavy rotation on country radio. On Greatest Hits you’ll find inspired versions of Radney Foster’s “Raining on Sunday,” which equates sex with spirituality; Rodney Crowell’s gorgeous mash note “Making Memories of Us,” sporting imagery whose eccentricity lends it the ring of authenticity; and Sarah Buxton’s “Stupid Boy,” an already magnificent piece of songwriting whose impact Urban increased further by switching its perspective from third-person accusation to first-person self-immolation. Each is refreshingly raw and uncompromising, and each sat proudly in the Top 10 alongside some of the most vapid nothingness ever to be loosed upon the unsuspecting country radio listenership. (Urban continues this habit by covering Steve Forbert’s offbeat love song “Romeo’s Tune” as one of the two new tracks here.)

It’s no accident that the most ordinary tracks on Greatest Hits—the only tracks it’s easy to imagine becoming a contemporary country hit if performed by a different artist—all hail originally from his 1999 debut, keith urban. (Back then his label employed the damnable practice of not using capital letters to spell his name; the title of his copy-editor-baiting 2006 album Love, Pain and the whole crazy thing implied he was at least complicit in this practice.) “Your Everything,” “But for the Grace of God” and especially “Where the Blacktop Ends” all remain likable, but their chief distinction is that they became hits big enough for the man singing them to be granted greater control over his artistic output.

In an age when the very idea of a best-of album is rapidly being rendered quaint—any Urban fan who pleases can create his or her own compilation with a few drag-and-drops—Greatest Hits demonstrates the way in which such a collection can help to define an artist. Urban’s attention to detail is suggested in both its canny sequencing and its preponderance of sometimes strikingly different radio remixes (which both suggests Urban’s understanding of how differently music plays in varying contexts and makes this a necessary purchase even for fans who already own the original albums). More importantly, the songs here demonstrate the way in which Urban has always expressed a coherent worldview centered around the notion that love is the only guide that can be relied upon to lead one through life’s obstacles—or perhaps the only destination worth reaching. It’s not the most original idea, but at his best, Urban makes it sound as fresh and illuminating as a brand new day.

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