June 19, 2018 / 1:06 AM

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REVIEW: Keith Urban Crafts New Aesthetic For Country On 'Fuse,' Without Abandoning Its Core


"Some things never go out of style," or so Keith Urban claims on his album "Fuse," and country music has long profited from the mantra. Thirty years of performers, from George Strait to Garth Brooks, Toby Keith to Luke Bryan, ultimately boil down to the same themes: a tip of the Stetson to the blue-collar lifestyle, plus a love of the open country, stiff drinks and pretty women (and the occasional problems that stem from the latter two options). Recent developments, such as guest verses from rappers like Nelly, don't alter the formula so much as acknowledge its broadening appeal. 

Urban gave details regarding "Fuse" during an August Rolling Stone interview that suggested shifts far more dramatic than a hip-hop guest verse. Phrases including "industrial-punk-ish" were used.

If anyone were to radically alter country music, it makes sense that it would be Urban. He sympathizes with performers across all genres as part of his "American Idol" gig, so why shouldn't he collect what he's learned onto an album? An Australian expat, Urban's approach has always been as an outsider looking in at the "authentic" experiences of the American sales-juggernauts anyhow. 

The effects of Urban's travels, and his work with producers such as Butch Walker (Pink, Weezer) and Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Jay Z) make themselves noticed instantly. Elizondo in the programmed percussion that backs the more upbeat numbers, and Walker in the washed-out ambience that floats behind Urban as he sings ballads. 

Urban doesn't throw it all to the wind however. He counters every urban rhythm with an equally rural banjo melody, and Urban's vocal lilt could countrify a Metallica cover. 

All these qualities, however prominent, serve as mere adornments for the well-oiled machine of country music. Urban and company can cut-up riffs such as "Little Bit of Everything" with computer software as much as they want, but the song throughout the album follow the same formula that's been the backbone of country music for decades. Quiet verses rise into a rousing choruses, celebrating the simple pleasures of "cool chicks" and strong drinks. 

Urban offers content that any country fan can appreciate, even if he presents it in a new light. "Fuse" doesn't represent an overthrow of the genre's conventions, but rather a remodeling. If Strait's kitchen features a polished, white refrigerator, Urban has merely replaced it with a stainless steel model. The aesthetics have changed but the song remains the same. 

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