What is country music anymore – “that is the question!” Country music has changed dramatically over the years, incorporating more elements of pop and urban music. Whether or not it’s good for the sanctity or preservation of the genre is beside the point – everybody is joining the bandwagon. Keith Urban is all in for liberalizing country music, with his latest album Ripcord being a perfect case in point. Does it work? For the most part, the answer is yes.
Ripcord gets off to a fast start with the one-two punch of “Gone Tomorrow (Here Today)” and “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.” Why are these songs so effective? Both transcend traditional country characterizations, and if it weren’t for a few country cues or the simple fact that Keith Urban is classified as a country artist, it might be hard to tell this is country music. Vocally, Urban sounds nothing short of terrific.
The experimentation doesn’t stop with the opening duo. The synths of “Wasted Time” are completely indicative of electro-pop music and it takes banjo to remind otherwise. “Habit Of You” reins Ripcord back in…somewhat. There’s enough nuance about Urban’s pipes that gives this ballad the warmth of a country song. Still, with the drum programming hailing from hip-hop circles, Ripcord still has one foot firmly planted in pop.
Any doubts of Urban’s eclecticism? He brings in veteran guitarist Nile Rodgers (Chic) and ubiquitous pop-rapper Pitbull. While eliminating Pitbull would’ve been just fine (keeping it real), Urban remains true to himself even if the backdrop certainly sounds like nothing that would ever appear on say an Alan Jackson album. As the old saying goes, “to each his own.”
“Gettin’ In The Way” continues the country-pop trek, though Urban sounds more ‘country’ in this instance than he has much of the album. Follow-up “Blue Ain’t Your Color” is more intriguing, embracing soul. It’s not far-fetched – think old school country that’s more slickly produced. While “Blue Ain’t Your Color” doesn’t carry the weight of say Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” it’s worthwhile – definitely worthy of spins.
Urban joins forces with Carrie Underwood on “The Fighter,” definitely a pop cut. While it’ll be considered most off-putting to traditionalists, given the penchant for both Urban and Underwood to embrace country-pop, it’s not unfounded. Call “The Fighter” a country cut that pop fans, perhaps even urban fans can “get into.” Again, is this a country song?
Following the classic “Blue Ain’t Your Color” and the energetic “The Fighter,” “Break On Me” cools things down. It lacks the punch of either track that precedes it but is sound. “Boy Gets A Truck” smartly incorporates driving rhythms and pushes both tempo and energy. “Truck” unlike so many of Ripcord’s songs feels primarily country. Interestingly, if the risks of Ripcord appeal the most, “Boy Gets A Truck” feels ever too safe.
“Your Body” reinvigorates the innovative spirit, opting for soulful pop fare. Urban nails the rhythmic lines, infusing a healthy dosage of personality on the sensual chorus. Penultimate record “That Could Still Be Us” pulls back, returning Urban to Nashville…well via Australia of course. Closer “Worry ‘Bout Nothin’” also ‘brushes off’ earlier experiments with pop save for a subtle synth. Go figure!
Overall, Ripcord is quite enjoyable. If examined without labels, it probably plays better as opposed if it’s considered a ‘country’ album. Traditionalists probably will label Urban as a sellout, but those who embrace eclecticism and experimentation will “eat this up.” Don’t go calling this the album of the year, but there’s plenty to love about Ripcord.
Favorites: “Gone Tomorrow (Here Today),” “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16,” “Habit Of You,” “Blue Ain’t Your Color” and “The Fighter”
Keith Urban • Ripcord • Capitol Nashville • Release Date: 5.6.16