Even though 2013 was a notoriously bad year for crossover Country, there were really a surprising number of great Country albums released that year, from Kacey Musgraves’ powerfully honest Same Trailer, Different Park to Ashley Monroe’s fiery Like a Rose, and from Jennifer Nettles’ twist on the classics That Girl to Brad Paisley’s wildly experimental Wheelhouse.
Now, Keith Urban has released many wonderful albums in his day, but I chose to spotlight this one because of the significant change it represented for his sound. This is an album that mixes conventional Country music with Pop and other influences into a kind of fusion genre. Granted, there was a lot of that around in 2013…far more than anyone wanted, actually…but most of these acts fell under the shadow of ‘Bro-Country’, and were mixing Country with other genres simply in order to cash in on the Pop market. Urban, on the other hand, seems to be doing it because he genuinely finds experimenting with blending different genres interesting, and seems to be trying to find the next stage in Country’s development as a genre. Granted, Brad Paisley did something similar with the Wheelhouse album the same year, but Urban’s attempts are far more accessible and Pop-friendly than Paisley’s, which helps explain why this was by far the more successful of the two albums.
For most of the album, the subject matter and lyrical content of this album are not really all that different from the Bro-Country acts, albeit thankfully without the sleaze that has become that genre’s primary calling card. With a couple of exceptions (like the strikingly dark “Shame”), the bulk of the album is devoted to what would seem from the lyrics alone to be very conventional Pop-Country ‘Good-Time’ songs from the tradition stretching back to Jimmy Buffett. Sometimes they are framed as melancholy reminiscences on good times that are now gone (“Somewhere In My Car”, “We Were Us”), but even then the vernacular used is basically the same. What makes these songs different from the others in that vein is the music, an exceptionally fresh and distinctive Country-Pop sound that had never been heard before, yet sounded far more natural and less bizarre than, say, Brad Paisley’s attempts at the same thing.
And it’s worth noting that while Urban’s de facto protege Sam Hunt has proven to be far more uneven when attempting this kind of thing on his own, Hunt’s songwriting contribution here, “Cop Car” (which was also cross-pollenated onto Hunt’s own album Montevallo) is one of the finest items here, featuring a much more vivid and detailed narrative than most of the album’s good-time reminiscences.
Then, on the last two tracks, the album takes a decided turn for the serious and substantial, with the inspirational anthem “Raise ‘Em Up” and the melancholy piano ballad “Heart Like Mine”. “Raise ‘Em Up” in particular is probably the album’s high point, an immensely stirring call to live life to the fullest that keeps changing the context and meaning of its title phrase throughout…there’s a reason it was the song from this album chosen to receive a Grammy nomination.
All in all, this is one of the most fascinating Country albums of our time, and I credit it with helping to inspire such later Country genre hybrids as Eric Church’s brilliant The Outsiders(Church was, after all, a featured vocalist on this album’s best song). Some have complained that Urban ‘doesn’t even sound like Country anymore’, but ultimately, Country has only two chances of survival after the backlash against Bro-Country nearly killed it: to go back to its roots (as acts like Chris Stapleton have attempted), or to go forward to a totally new sound. Frankly, I imagine it’ll wind up doing a little of both, and that doesn’t bother me at all, because both options seem to be inviting fascinating and talented artists like Urban (or Church, or Paisley, or Stapleton, or Musgraves, among many others) to create some of the most interesting and substantive Country music the genre has seen in many a year.