Album Review: Keith Urban - Fuse
By: Bobby Peacock
For several years now, I'll admit: my interest in Keith Urban has been waning a bit. After he hit a creative apex with Love, Pain & the whole crazy thing — with its heavier yet interesting production, and strong lyric choices — he seemed to kinda of cool off a little. Granted, most of his songs were still a cut above (except the terminally boring "Without You"), but with a few exceptions, he was starting to slip from "excellent" to just "very good." Perhaps, like a few other artists in recent memory (e.g., Brad Paisley, who abandoned Frank Rogers in favor of self-producing Wheelhouse), he felt that he had been going down the same path just a little too long. The same producer (Dann Huff), same style of songs, same co-writers, same session musicians can get, well, boring, so why not go for a change of scenery?
The result of that change of scenery is Fuse, an almost absurdly eclectic mix that has Urban at his best. A whopping eleven producers are credited, ranging from Urban and Huff, to a few more in the country arena (Nathan Chapman, Jay Joyce), a few on its edge (Ross Copperman), and some way out of left field (Stargate). Urban co-wrote only a few of the songs, leaving plenty of room for a wide cast of collaborators, all of whom bring their "A" material.
First up is "Somewhere in My Car." With simple yet effective heartbroken lyrics like "I don't wanna be alone / There's nobody waiting there / Cold and empty bed / Words I wished I'd said / Come on the radio" and "In my mind, we're somewhere in my car / And it's raining hard…," it's a yearning up-tempo that has Keith Urban in full force. But even though it's closest to "traditional" Keith Urban — outside a bonus track, it's the only song here co-produced by him and Huff — it still has a couple tweaks. The heavier guitars, some of which have a wah-wah; the echo on the banjo line; the synth bass; the staccato, "Somewhere with You"-esque chorus (courtesy of J. T. Harding, who wrote both songs).
Cars are a recurring motif on Keith Urban albums, so why not another kind of car? A "Cop Car," to be precise. The muffled drum loop and ringing chords give a melancholy feel to a story about running off with a girl, but getting caught in the act and hauled off in the eponymous car. "I fell in love in the back of a cop car" works far better as a hook than you would think, adding some levity not just to the song, but to the album as a whole — and making me realize how rarely Keith employs humor. Completing the car trifecta is the snappy "Red Camaro," about, well, a hot girl whom he imagines in the passenger seat of a red Camaro. Yes, she has boots and a dress. Yes, he advances on her. Yes, it's one of two songs to mention Coca-Cola on the album. But it's still got a sturdy beat and cool synth strings.
"Even the Stars Fall 4 U" (no, Prince didn't co-write it) is another up-tempo love song in trademark Urban fashion lyrically: "You gotta know what you do / Even the stars fall for you." But under the heavily filtered "whoa oh"s and larger-than-life drums, there's still plenty of mandolin and banjo. Oh yeah, and he mentions trucks, can't forget that. On the flipside, "Shame" begins with a heavy kick drum, and a lyric about a man kicking himself for what he's done wrong in his relationship, "Stupid Boy"-style. But unlike that song, it's got little more than a heavy kick drum and guitar strums on the verses (replete with repeated "Shame on me"s), followed by a monster chorus hung on the sturdy line "Everyone hurts the same / What a shame." For a song with six writers, whose combined credits include several Maroon 5 songs, it indeed sounds like a lost single of theirs, except with a far better vocalist than Adam Levine behind it.
"Little Bit of Everything" might as well be the album's anchor, and not just because of how well the title reflects the content. The "stuttered" ukulele riff and synth bass line create new textures around Urban's tenor, but the strong rhythms and banjo/electric guitar interplay make it unmistakably his own. Lyrics like "I wish I could take a cab down to the creek / And hang a disco ball from an old oak tree" paint a quirky image of living life to the fullest. And while some may question if someone who has made highly-publicized trips to rehab should be singing about drinking and smoking (he also does so on "Good Thing"), I view the song as a lighthearted flight of fancy that shouldn't be taken too literally. The next single, "We Were Us," pairs Urban with Miranda Lambert. Lambert actually gets the intro verse, her voice blending well both with Urban's passioned tenor and the reverberating, banjo-heavy production. The chorus gets a little chaotic, but not enough to distract from its reminiscence of a small-town lover who's now gone. Lines like "Wishing that empty seat was you" color in the details in excellent fashion.
And speaking of pairings — if ever there we a dream pairing of producer and singer in my head, it would be Jay Joyce (best known for his work with Eric Church) and Keith Urban. That dream actually comes true on "Love's Poster Child," and it sounds just like what I thought it would. A big soaring chorus, a heavy drum loop, echoing vocals, and lots of low-tuned guitar are all perfect sonic ingredients that fit well with this sweet, passionate ode to a hot girl. ("I'm a broke down truck, baby, won't you fix me?" is a great line, too.) Speaking of Church, he guests on "Raise 'Em Up," a list of things that can be raised up in good times: lighters at a rock concert, sails on a boat, umbrellas, hands in various situations, even new babies. Despite its lyrics, though, it's more laid back and cool, feeling somewhat like "Hey Pretty Girl" filtered through the Urban recipe. The only downside is that Eric Church feels somewhat like an afterthought, his own vocal style blending just a little too well with the surroundings to stand out.
But why have one ode to a hot girl when you can have two? That's where "She's My 11" comes in. With its "We Will Rock You"-esque stomp-stomp-clap beat and the obvious yet killer hook "She's my radio turned up to 11," Urban goes for higher notes than ever before on the chorus, while giving the casual verses the loose delivery they need to pop. (Oh yeah, and check out the tight banjo solo.) These songs' more casual feelings contrast with the earlier "Good Thing," one of Urban's hardest-rocking songs yet. It's a lyric coming on to a woman who's by herself with lines like "A girl like you should have the best of everything" and "I know a good thing when I see it." It could easily be a hit for anyone skilled in the fine art of radio-ready rocking party jams (e.g., Florida Georgia Line), but Urban's passion and guitar wizardry give it more weight.
Fuzzy synths and drum loops lead off "Come Back to Me," a more melancholy number. "Go see everything you think you need to see / Then come back to me," he sings, reluctantly accepting that his girl will leave, but still holding out hope that she'll come back. After so much tempo, and so many instances where even the slower songs are larger than life, it's a welcome respite. Overall, it reminds me of a heavier version of "You'll Think of Me," my favorite song of his. Closing off the "vanilla" edition of the album is another slower song, "Heart Like Mine." Primarily a piano ballad, it's also a breakup song about a man who's done wrong, but now realizes too late that things have gone wrong, and promises to change. Despite its well-worn formula, it has more than enough interesting sonic landscape to keep things going — especially near the end, where a wall of "whoa oh"s is built around him, and Urban lets his falsetto fly for a few notes.
Those who buy the deluxe edition will get three more songs: "Black Leather Jacket," "Gonna B Good" (again with the Prince-esque titles), and "Lucky Charm." "Black Leather Jacket," with its vivid imagery of teenage years, is the best of the three, but "Gonna B Good" and "Lucky Charm" are both so feel-good and energetic that I would be remiss not to mention them. (However, I will admit that the lyrics on the latter were very hard to make out.)
Fuse is clearly the product of Urban stretching his musical muscle like never before. All of the changes are just right, fitting into his signature sound while offering something new and creative at every turn. It's not like he's venturing into death metal, electronica, or CCM, just continuing to offer his heavy pop and rock influences better than ever before. The flashy guitar solos are somewhat downplayed for a change, but the trade-off comes in the fact that each song never overstays its welcome, which has constantly been my main criticism of his work. The sound is bigger and bolder than anything he's done before, but somehow managing to leave even more room for his always-superb vocal skills, and of course, keeping it radio-friendly enough that nearly anything could be a single. Even the two tracks produced by Huff have huge drums, vocal filters, and other accoutrements, and all of the other producers bring something to the table while maintaining near-total cohesion. Hot girls, cars, radios, and heartbreak are the main fare lyrically, but each song has its own spin on its given idea without ever making anything feel like a retread. Several songs, particularly "Cop Car," "Shame," "Little Bit of Everything," "We Were Us," and "Black Leather Jacket" all have different details and/or phrasing than his usual songs. Overall, Fuse could not have done a better job of re-energizing Keith Urban's musical style. Indeed, this album does offer a "Little Bit of Everything."