REVIEW: Keith Urban – ‘Graffiti U’

Welcome to the third age of Keith Urban. One thing you have to give the guy credit for is his unwillingness to rest on his laurels and churn out the same re-hashed version of ‘You Look Good in My Shirt’, which must be temptingly easy for him to do. Urban’s ‘first age’ culminated in ‘Love, Pain and the Whole Crazy Truth’, this was his Country age where he established himself as one of Nashville’s most talented and energetic performers. Marriage to Nicole Kidman began the second phase, when his creativity and impetus dipped as he wrote soppy love song after soppy love song but his last two albums, ‘Fuse’ and ‘Ripcord’ saw something of a creative resurgence, birthing such great songs as ‘Cop Car’, We Were Us’ and ‘John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16’. New album, ‘Graffiti U’ ushers in the third age – an age of experimentation and confusion for Urban. There are no songs on ‘Graffiti U’ as good as any of the aforementioned songs and what we have instead is a lot of ideas all thrown together and a concerted attempt, by their creator, to re-position himself as something more, something different to just a ‘Country artist’. Ultimately that desire and career aspiration leads to nothing on this album but confusion – meaning ‘Graffiti’ is an apt description of what is on offer here – bright, messy and all over the place.

Album opener, ‘Coming Home’ is a perfect example of this confusion. Ultilising a Merle Haggard riff, Urban co-opts Julia Michaels (songwriter with such acts as Selena Gomez, Fifth Harmony and Justin Bieber) onto a song that is interestingly structured and unusually programmed yet ultimately a little bit boring. It doesn’t really say anything and whilst their voices work well together there’s a lack of depth or gravitas that Urban had in spades on songs like ‘Stupid Boy’. I’m getting my first inkling that this could be a ‘mid-life crisis’ album – like your dad buying a flash new car or finding your mum on Tinder, trying to re-create something long-gone.

There are quite a lot of other moments on ‘Graffiti U’ that make you wonder just what it was Urban was trying to achieve here. There are so many flashbacks and references to the 80’s on it that it’s hard to remember which decade you are actually listening to it in. Ok, I know the 80’s are in-vogue right now and shows like ‘Stranger Things’ have brought the fashions and pop-culture of that decade back into the spotlight but do we really need a musical remember of what was a fun but ultimately tasteless musical time?

‘Never Comin’ Down’ could well be a Lionel Richie song from that era – a poppy drum beat and 80’s synth drive the song and we even get an African-infused, Paul Simon-esque breakdown halfway through as well. ‘Gemini’ takes things even further with its use of 80’s synth and full on references to Michael Sembello’s 1983 hit ‘Maniac’. In-fact, there is a line in the chorus which sort of defines the whole album and will set the #MeToo activists howling in derision when Urban sings, ‘She’s a maniac in the bed but a brainiac in her head.” WTF is this? Really Keith? This sort of crap might have been OK in 1983 but in 2018? Really? I can’t believe someone in his organisation, right down from Nicole Kidman (who, funnily enough, was born on June 20th) to the guy that delivers the mail at UMG Nashville didn’t call him on this when you consider some of the wonderful songs of depth that he has written in other parts of his career.

There are other questionable moments regarding the view of women on ‘Graffiti U’. I don’t hold with the view that ‘Female’ is a mansplaining mis-step, as some sections of the Nashville community do. Co-written with Shane McAnnally, the song is a mature, tasteful  and well-thought out piece about the beauty and complexity of the female soul. We can’t and shouldn’t reach a point where members of one gender can’t sing about the opposite sex without being hounded with accusations of sexism or man/womensplaining!!

‘Drop Top’, however, is another matter altogether and a further example of the confusion surrounding this release. A disco drumbeat, not dis-similar to ‘The Fighter’ from Urban’s previous album, ‘Ripcord’, kicks things off. Urban co-opts Kassi Ashton onto this song, a young and highly thought of Nashville singer-songwriter who shares the same record label as him. Together they tell a tale of a girl who goes to ‘Coachella with flowers in her hair’, a wild soul who likes to drive with the drop-top down and who ‘looks like a teenage dream’. At this point it’s worth remembering that Keith Urban is 51 years old – and singing about girls who look that way might not be really age appropriate perhaps? Mid-life crisis anyone?

There are some good songs on ‘Graffiti U’ and it’s worth giving them a shout out. ‘Same Heart’ is perhaps the most traditional Keith Urban track on the album. It’s a lovely, mid-tempo piece with a simple melody and a perfectly executed chorus, leaving me with the feeling that Keith has forgotten the old adage that less is, sometimes, more. The same could be said for album highlight, ‘Parallel Line’. This is a beautiful song, worthy of any Keith Urban album. The vulnerability in his voice, the tender chorus and the meaningful lyrics all combine superbly to give this song the gravitas and weight that is sadly lacking on many of the songs on ‘Graffiti U’. ‘Texas Time’ is also worthy of note. A 70’s infused number about the Lone Star State that has throwback echoes of ‘Jeans On’ from early album, ‘Golden Road’. And whilst the lyrics dip a little around the line, ‘Give me a tight T shirt on a real hot body,’ the funky programming, blusey guitar and Bon Jovi voice-box that close the song down are excellent.

Another interesting song is ‘Horses’. This one features Canadian guitarist, singer and all round lovely person, Lindsay Ell. An acoustic guitar (a rare find on this album) starts things off before the electrics kick in on the chorus: a chorus that is uplifting yet modern, fun but age appropriate. Lindsay’s backing vocals augment a song that, whilst still being slightly 80’s influenced (I’m hearing Australian band, ‘Men at Work’ on this one), works brilliantly in the context of what Keith Urban can, and should be doing. ‘Love the Way it Hurts So Good’ and ‘Steal My Thunder’ are also more traditionally Urban and whilst they aren’t exactly stand out songs they aren’t exactly ‘My Wave’.

Oh Keith. ‘My Wave’? Really? Along with ‘Gemini’, ‘My Wave’ is really the low-point of ‘Graffiti U’. It’s a blatant Jason Mraz riff that drives the song – that type of ocean, beachy feel, which is fine but has been done to death by both Mraz and acts like Train over the years. The lyrics are awful – sort of cod-psychology stuff about freedom and living your life and there is even a rap breakdown about three-quarters of the way in. I barely made it to the end of the song if I’m being honest I can’t believe that someone with Urban’s recording history and talent could think that this was a good sound for him at 51 years old.

This isn’t about ‘Graffiti U’ not being a Country album, which it isn’t by any stretch of the Walker Hayes imagination, it’s about it not really being very good. It’s about being confused as to where Urban himself thinks he is going as an artist and what he is prepared to do to his legacy to get there. It’s hard to imagine that same artist that recorded ‘Raining on Sunday’ and ‘Tonight I Wanna Cry’ can think that ‘Gemini’ is a good fit! The elephant in the room is that Keith Urban doesn’t really want to be considered a Country artist anymore – his aspirations are wider than that and fair enough, Taylor Swift, The Band Perry and Kacey Musgraves have all had the same ambitions but the problem for Urban, as far as I can see, is that this is a lose-lose situation for him, it’s a sort of damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario – Country music fans will not buy this album but non-Country fans won’t either unless there is some very clever marketing and promotion around it. Urban’s team have already, allegedly, turned down a number of requests for him to appear over here in the UK at the C2C Festival in London because they didn’t want him to be associated with Country music in Europe and it looks like that marketing strategy is being applied to the States as well.

That’s fine, every artist has the right to determine their own future and career progression but the bigger issue with ‘Graffiti U’ is that it is just too confusing, too diverse and too jumbled an album, to appeal to anyone. It lacks a heart, it lacks an identity and lacks authenticity. It feels like a mis-guided attempt to be younger and more vibrant with wider cross-genre appeal but it’s not. ‘Graffiti U’ leaves Keith Urban looking a little bit like a man out of time, like your divorced dad, set free in his fifties and throwing everything out there, at a wall, just to see what sticks! Just like graffiti itself, it’s bright, sometimes interesting but ultimately an eyesore and whist you can enjoy it for what it is it’ll be so much better when someone comes along with a can of white paint and makes it all clean again.

James Daykin
@rockjames