Keith Urban, “Fuse” (Capitol Nashville)
No country singer wants to affirm you more than Urban, who’s expert if not quite exciting in the genre of “girl, you’re awesome” songs. “Fuse” is lousy with them, and with so many stacked so close together, even the most flattered person would chafe.
“Fuse” is different from other recent albums by Urban in the scale of its production, though. He’s been poking his head out of the Nashville machine lately, but a judge’s chair on “American Idol” and a few phone calls to pop producers do not a rebel make. Difference in country is a game of millimeters, trading one form of conservatism for another.
That means a meaty chant near the end of “Even the Stars Fall 4 U” or a head-fake club-music intro to “Red Camaro” or dim lyrics on “Little Bit of Everything” that mildly spoil his good-guy sheen.
But real change comes from within, and no number of collaborators can unearth something that just isn’t there. Case in point: “Come Back to Me,” written by Shane McAnally, Brandy Clark and Trevor Rosen, who prefer ambiguity and anguish over directness and sunshine. Produced by Urban with Butch Walker, who has a gift for restless rock arrangements, it doesn’t allow Urban to be placid.
Urban has been ably sad before — see his gut-punch hit of a decade ago, “You’ll Think of Me” — but rarely is he unresolved. And while this song has the shadow of Gary Allan’s loneliness about it, Urban doesn’t possess Allan’s sorrow. The words are working hard here, and the music is, too, but Urban is gliding through, barely quaking at all.
JON CARAMANICA, New York Times
The Weeknd, “Kiss Land” (XO/Republic)
On the cover of the Weeknd’s new record, singer Abel Tesfaye stares back with his face cocked upward. That look signals a new vulnerability for the Toronto experimental R&B singer on this remarkable album. Tesfaye and his producers have taken the template of his sound — close-miked falsettos, bleary synth pads and creeping drums — and upgraded it into a horror-house of despairing anti-soul.
But more important, “Kiss Land” finds some wounded humanity in Tesfaye’s controlled, quivering voice. “Pretty” takes the stock tale of touring’s loneliness and estrangement and turns it inside out with a mix of forgiveness and entitlement toward his old flame.
For an act founded in anonymity and reserve, it turns out the Weeknd’s most convincing work of art is Tesfaye’s own rollout as a star and storyteller. “Kiss Land” is a rough place to visit. But then again, when it comes to sex and loneliness, we’ve all been there.
August Brown, Los Angeles Times