Something of a rebound from the bloated, self-indulgent Love, Pain, & the Whole Crazy Thing, Keith Urban’s Defying Gravity still only intermittently hints at the full breadth of the singer’s talent. While the tightness of the album’s production, courtesy of co-producer and long-time collaborator Dan Huff, and the technical perfection of its slick pop hooks make for an improvement over its predecessor, there’s a certain creative spark that’s missing.
Lead single “Sweet Thing,” a terrific radio anthem, is just one of the songs that demonstrate how seamlessly Urban and Huff incorporate a banjo into a mainstream rock template, but it doesn’t do anything that previous hits like “Somebody Like You” and “You’re My Better Half” have already done just as well or better. And if “Sweet Thing” is a retread, then second single “Kiss a Girl” is but a retread of a retread. The emo-leaning ballads run into the same trap. Urban writes and sings “If I Could Ever Love” and “My Heart Is Open” to within an inch of his life; they’re fine songs and performances on their own merits, but they’re songs he’s written and performed with greater conviction before.
Despite what its title may suggest, Urban just doesn’t take many risks on Gravity. Whereas some ragged edges and some interesting production choices gave character to his earlier work, the studio polish of these songs robs Urban of what makes him such a distinctive act. Even the hard-driving “Hit the Ground Running” lacks a real follow-through to its punch. And Urban needs that rawness to counter balance some of the schmaltzier impulses he’s developed recently. “Only You Can Love Me This Way” and “Thank You,” an ode to his wife Nicole Kidman, recall the drippiness of early-‘90s Richard Marx and Bryan Adams. At his most vulnerable—on past hits like “Raining on Sunday” or “Making Memories of Us”—Urban has proven that he’s better than that.
There aren’t any real misfires here like there were on Love, but a tepid cover of Radney Foster’s “I’m In” pales in comparison to the Kinleys’s soulful version of the song from a few years back, and so much of the album feels so deliberately tasteful and conservative. Defying Gravity barely gets off the ground.