Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing
ondrous at communicating the rich details of existence, not to mention giving voice to the yearnings and convictions of the sort of Americans who frequently get culturally ignored, country music can nonetheless be a pretty unforgiving straightjacket for those who perform it.
There are certain standards and guidelines that generally must be followed in order to be considered a bankable commodity in Nashville. It goes deeper than politics: even though the majority of country stars are doubtlessly card-carrying conservatives, even more articulate a common outlook on life—one that esteems specific ideals of family, faith, and safe, reactionary logic over their photographic negatives.
And no, this isn’t about Keith Urban entering rehab, being Australian, or getting hitched to Nicole Kidman. It’s more about how remarkable it is that he’s managed to almost completely eschew the traditional moral and ideological identifiers of popular country music—and still be successfully marketed as a pop-country star. Listening to Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing, you won’t hear nuanced depictions of rural Dixie life (duh) or entertainingly blunt assessments of battles both global and marital, but you also won’t hear any stale jokes or dumbass knee-jerk socio-political sentiments either.
Instead, what you will hear is an album that’s part syrupy adult contemporary, part rootless flyover rock, and part airtight pop. Only the slight twang in Urban’s voice and the occasional banjo or pedal steel really mark this music as country at all, though it’s hard to say what else you’d call it, and almost impossible to imagine Urban having nearly as much success being sold in any other genre. In Nashville, however, Urban stands out for the sincerity of his craft. His lyrics may be doggedly unspecific, but ear-worming hooks and top-shelf instrumentation largely rectify that shortcoming.
Though he’s made much of his bank as a balladeer, Urban flashes an admirable flair for up-tempo pop-rock here, turning in a lovely Irish-inflected gem with "I Told You So" that links up Bryan Adams to "Like a Prayer." "Tu Compania" is a sprightly little bluesy strut that honestly doesn’t sound too far removed from Little Big Town, but Urban really finds his niche when he breaks from Nashville wholly on "Faster Car," a punchy slice of power-pop uncorked with springy coils of guitar that’s entirely worthy of Elvis Costello or Todd Rundgren.
Of course, Urban loves a good whiskey-soaked wallow or string-laden slow dance even better than most of his sap-approving pop-country peers, but few of Nashville’s usual suspects flex as much instrumental muscle when things turn mushy. “Shine” and “Stupid Boy” in particular are stretched out to luxurious lengths, and it’s admirably tiring to witness the work Urban invests in building them to epic scale, outfitting the former with fat piano chords, stirring violins, and rousing backing vocals while lading the latter with a spotlight-worthy guitar solo.
Even next to post-regionalist icons like Kenny Chesney and Shania Twain, Urban stands out for his remarkable faithfulness to the middle of the road. Having stripped his music of virtually all of country’s verbal signifiers, Urban can mean something to a housewife in Poughkeepsie or Peoria that perhaps Toby Keith cannot. If that statement suggests his music is safe or even a bit bland, well, yeah, there’s probably some truth to that. However, you can’t deny the solidness of Urban’s songcraft, and stacked up next to most milquetoast lite FM denizens his hooks are certifiable knockouts. There are traditions, trappings, and contrivances in Nashville that tie the music to its past and point the way forward for listeners who must sometimes feel themselves adrift in an ironist’s age. Still, country’s most democratic trait, at least lately, has been its not-so-secret desire to appeal to as broad a swath of America as possible. Australian though he may be, Keith Urban represents that mutually-agreed-upon ideal as well as anyone.