Maybe we should think of him as Mr. Nicole Kidman or the “American Idol” judge with the Aussie accent. Because it’s hard to think of Keith Urban as a relevant country star for his work in 2018.
Like Taylor Swift, he still has a Nashville address (plus a few homes elsewhere). Like Swift, he has abandoned the sound that established him in favor of a trendy electronic pop sound. That vibe defines his experimental new album, the modest-selling “Graffiti U,” and dominated his concert Saturday night at sold-out Target Center in Minneapolis.
There is no question that Urban, at 50, remains an affable, generous entertainer, a versatile, expressive guitarist and a passionate, sweet-voiced singer. But his skills and talents couldn’t transcend the ordinariness of his songs and the dullness of his sound, especially on the material from “Graffiti U.”
It’s hard to argue with Urban’s a) energy (he played 2¼ hours); b) conviction (he seemed genuinely enthusiastic and sang as if all 13,000 fans were Kidman), and c) charm (he turned it on with that smile, those dimples and all the attention he gave to fans by slapping their hands, reading their handmade signs and inviting a select few onstage and handing one his autographed guitar).
But with the seven new tunes — and a couple from 2016’s “Ripcord” album — where were the melodies? The songs were smothered in synthesized electronica, with throbbing bass and thudding drums. Where were the guitar solos? Urban is Nashville’s most celebrated guitar hero in concert but he played too few extended passages on Saturday. Where was the banjo? It was heard on only one number all night.
Even the 2015 hit “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” — one of the most country and clever songs in Urban’s repertoire — got overdressed in electronics and volume, diminishing its impact and the audience’s reaction.
Similarly, “Where the Black Top Ends” — an early-career favorite from 2001 with strong country sensibilities in lyrics and sound — suffered from hyper-aggression, sounding like a speeding 4-by-4 without a muffler because of too many loud guitars, including the lap steel of Megan Lovell of Larkin Poe, a sisterly duo (Rebecca Lovell played mandolin) that appeared on only one selection.
There were other guests, including Carrie Underwood, Julia Michaels and Kassi Ashton via the giant video screens, and Kelsea Ballerini in person. Having opened the show, Ballerini joined Urban for “We Were Us,” a pairing that brought out the vocal fire in both of them (Miranda Lambert sang on the recorded version).
There were other satisfying moments, including the dramatic slow-dance “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” the shiny, happy “Somebody Like You,” the guitar assault of “Long Hot Summer” and the gentle solo acoustic “Stupid Boy.”
The latter song was preceded by “Female,” an earnest but not artful piece of MeToo support. It, like other “Graffiti U” tracks, seemed to find Urban outside his sonic comfort zone. With its electronic sheen, “Love the Way It Hurts (So Good)” suggested Maroon 5 channeling Hall & Oates; the rhythmic “Drop Top” evoked Florida Georgia Line channeling Maroon 5, and the high-pitched “Parallel Line” sounded like an Ed Sheeran slow jam (he co-wrote it).
To be fair, Urban, like many male country stars of the past 15 years, has always sounded more like ’80s pop-rock than Nashville twang. But this time he sounded less organic and too mechanical.
Ballerini, who also opened for him at the Minnesota State Fair in 2015, seemed less innocent and more polished this time. She’s 25 and recently wed an Aussie country singer. Musically, she appears to have taken up where Taylor Swift left off at age 22. Ballerini offered some superior country-pop songs, including “Get Over Yourself,” “Miss Me More” and “I Hate Love Songs” (“but I love you,” she sings). But when she delivered her latest single, “This Feeling,” a collaboration with pop-dance producers the Chainsmokers, it was clear that she, like Urban, wants to live in an electronica pop world.