So far, Keith Urban shows no signs of running out of exhilarating ways to declare life is grand, or finding dizzyingly uplifting guitar riffs that echo that sentiment.
On the Australian star's fourth solo album, "Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing," the emphasis is definitely on love, and on shifting his music slightly away from organic roots-rock toward thunderous arena rock.
The lyrical focus on a special bond that lasts is understandable, considering that the singer-songwriter married actress Nicole Kidman in June. There's only a couple of nods to Urban's nearly as well-known struggles with addiction. "Stupid Boy" is a funky, witty take on a guy who can't appreciate how good he has it, while another highpoint, "Used to the Pain," portrays a man trying to overcome his habit of sabotaging positive developments in his life — appropriate, given his recent decision to go into rehab.
Urban still blends the earthy sounds of banjos and mandolins into his songs, but there's more emphasis on complex rhythms, thumping bass tracks and extended guitar breaks. He also moves into new territory on a synthesizer-driven bopper, "Faster Car," and a sunny acoustic funk tune, "Tu Compania." And he stretches his talent at intimate ballads, this time with the Beatlesque "I Can't Stop Loving You."
Urban occasionally overreaches, especially on the cringe-inducing "God Made Woman." But even that song, like the rest of this whole crazy collection, shows Urban taking artistic chances instead of playing it safe.
"Enjoy the Ride" may sound like an appropriately positive title for a group that shot to the forefront of country music with a 2 million-selling debut.
But Sugarland's rocket to stardom, which began in 2004 with the release of "Twice the Speed of Life," hit some turbulence: singer Jennifer Nettles and mandolinist Kristian Bush dealt with the abrupt departure in January 2006 of guitarist and songwriter Kristen Hall, who'd co-written their hits. The duo also changed producers, bringing in veteran producer Byron Gallimore, who's worked with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.
Fortunately, Sugarland goes down just as sweet as a duo. As on past hits "Something More" and "Baby Girl," the Georgia residents remain obsessed with upbeat songs about living their dreams. On songs like the new "Settlin' " and "One Blue Sky," they continue to find fresh ways to combine uplifting messages and catchy, pop-country arrangements without relying on lyrical or musical cliches.
But the album is at its best when the duo move beyond their core theme. "Stay," a soulful acoustic ballad, shows how effectively Nettles can express more complex emotions; "These Are the Days," a seemingly autobiographical defense against nay-sayers, portrays a man and woman who ignore the haters and keep their eye on enjoying their success; and, most surprising of all, the hard-rocking, humorous "Mean Girls," an Avril Lavigne-meets-Nashville tune that sneers at those who try to bring others down.
Sugarland is having too much fun, and have too much to say, to let that happen to them.
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