Keith Urban Lights a Creative Fire With 'Fuse'

Luis Sanchis

Keith Urban

Urban takes creative risks on first album since vocal scare. "I really enjoyed just not having a clue. What did George Harrison say? 'If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there.' It was very much that kind of liberation for me"

If a lead single is intended as a preview of a new album, Keith Urban's "Little Bit of Everything" was the perfect introduction to "Fuse."

The track occupies the No. 1 slot on Country Airplay for a second straight week, aiding consumer awareness of the new project, which Capitol Nashville will release Sept. 10. 

But the single's title also reflects the ambitious manner in which Urban threw a whole bunch of influences into the album's sonic stew. Fuse employs eight different producers; mixes acoustic, electric and digital instruments; and mashes pop, rock and country in a manner that's notably different from anything Urban has done before. At least on first listen.

As the album unfolds through repeated exposure, it becomes a comfortable next step for a guy who's already had a role in changing country's sound. When he used a ganjo as a percussive instrument in 2002's "Somebody Like You," Urban reintroduced the once-maligned banjo as a driver of pop/country anthems. In Fuse, he employs a smattering of sounds -- a broken-glass effect in "Even the Stars Fall 4 U," a skittering electronic ascent in the pumping "Good Thing" -- that in another era would have been shocking for a country-based artist.

In 2013, they're less a shock than a reaffirmation that Urban is on a quest to keep moving forward on his creative journey. As one of country's best-recognized ambassadors, his personal expansion is practically guaranteed to further move the boundaries that define mainstream country.

"It was just sort of finding that yin and yang," Urban says of the stylistic clash. "I always feel like if you take a song like 'Even the Stars Fall 4 U,' I want to take what's sort of an inherently rural-lyric song and then say, 'Let's not treat it like a rural song in its production. Let's go a different way with it.' I couldn't have done that production on a more pop-sounding song, because it just would have been yin and yin, which doesn't interest me."

Urban made it clear more than a year ago that he was taking a creative risk with "Fuse," telling the Tennessean, "We can't keep remaking the same record." He had an idea of where the sound needed to go. How he would reach that end goal was a different matter.

The journey was unknown

"But I really enjoyed just not having a clue. What did George Harrison say? 'If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there.' It was very much that kind of liberation for me."

It's the kind of adventure that strikes fear in some sectors of the music business. Urban has been a reliable hit maker with an identifiable sound since "Your Everything" peaked at No. 4 in 2000. Why mess with a good thing?

But truly artful musicians are invariably hungry to chart unfamiliar territory. His label supported that kind of endeavor. Los Angeles-based Capitol & Virgin Label Group president Dan McCarroll helped Urban make new connections in the non-country world. And the Universal Music Group's country division was actually stoked about the prospect.

"There are points in artists' careers where you might have to throw a curveball, and I was very excited to hear that he was looking in different directions," UMG Nashville chairman/CEO Mike Dungan says.

The eight producers, however, was a series of curveballs—even to Urban. He originally thought he would settle on one or two after trying out several, but he ultimately found the parade of collaborators was creatively stimulating. Thus, two of the 16 tracks on the deluxe edition still employ his longtime co-producer Dann Huff, but the album also marks Urban's first collaboration with such co-producers as Stargate (Rihanna, Beyoncé), Butch Walker (Fall Out Boy, Train) and Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Fiona Apple). 

"It's a little bit like when an athlete has a new coach," he explains. "You play, you perform differently. Different coaches will pull something out of the team and out of the player that the previous coach didn't do, and I find that really fascinating because I'm interested to know what else I can do. A lot of the time, it's being in the presence of those people in that environment that will have me seeing or hearing things that I've never done myself before."

Urban did not allow the accepted norms of country, his base of operation, to become walls. Fuse veers periodically into trash-can percussion sounds, synthesized bass parts and moderate dance grooves—elements that have little historic precedent in country. But genres were rarely addressed during the actual recording of the album. 

"I've been really fortunate to sit in a room with people like Keith and Taylor [Swift] and Lionel Richie, people who aren't really thinking about anything except making the best music they can make that day," says Nathan Chapman, who co-produced "Little Bit of Everything" and "We Were Us," which pairs Urban with Miranda Lambert. "There's no discussion of why we're doing something. It's just, ‘We're doing it.'"

Urban approached "Fuse" from some different perspectives. For one, it was his first album since he had a vocal polyp removed in November 2011. He's developed greater vocal strength since the surgery, and he had more confidence to push the limits of his range.

He also fit much of the album in between his appearances as a judge on Fox's "American Idol," where his critiques of singers were a form of A&R. That gig didn't necessarily influence the sound of Fuse, though it perhaps crystallized his beliefs about the importance of marrying the right artist with the right song.

"I can't say that there was a correlation on a conscious level," he says, "other than the fact that I love singers, and I love when a singer finds the song, it's in the right key, and the melody brings out all the best elements of their vocal, timbre and range. That's when magic happens."

In the end, through the multiple producers and the tangle of genres, Fuse succeeds as an album—even as a country album—because it still revolves cohesively around Urban's sensibilities.

"A lot of these records, when you start to use multiple producers, they feel very choppy," Dungan observes. "This just feels like a very fluid project, sonically. I don't know how they did it, but it makes me very happy."