Keith Urban has spent the past several years cementing his role as one of country music’s most genre-flexible veterans, teaming up with everyone from Pitbull to Kanye producer Jeff Bhasker on his 2016 smash Ripcord. Urban searches for crossover magic once again on Graffiti U, collaborating with a battalion of pop powerhouses including Ed Sheeran, Julia Michaels, Nate Ruess and Justin Tranter.
The Australian country star touches on everything from reggae-country, Eighties dance-rock, lite-FM power ballads, and muscular Top 40 on an album that manages to interpolate melodies and riffs from both Merle Haggard and Coldplay. But despite his far-flung sound collision, Urban is still at his best when staying firmly within his wheelhouse, delivering several undeniable hits on the soul-leaning arena ballad “Parallel Line” and the party-starting country rave “Never Comin Down.”
The 50-year-old singer made headlines last fall when he released “Female,” a lead single that served as Urban’s clunky, if earnest, commentary on Nashville’s attempt at a #MeToo reckoning. Unfortunately, Urban doubles down on his Music City mansplaining on Graffiti U, and the results tend to land somewhere between uncomfortable and embarrassing. On his latest, Urban never sounds less convincing than when he’s trying to create three-dimensional female characters, whether on the forced Coachella dream sequence “Drop Top” or “Gemini,” a maddeningly reductive character sketch that culminates with Urban singing: “She’s a maniac in the bed/But a brainiac in her head.”
Urban deserves credit for refusing to rest on his laurels during the height of his arena-headlining mid-career, but on Graffiti U he ends up shining brightest in his well-worn comfort zones while struggling, perhaps for the first time, when he tries to break new sonic and lyrical ground.