Keith Urban's fourth album, Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing, was released days after he entered a treatment center to treat his alcoholism. The album debuted in the top spot in the Billboard country charts, scored four hit singles, and eventually went double platinum. What's so remarkable about this is that Urban's rehabilitation regimen didn't allow him to tour for months after the disc's release, a move that could've hurt sales. It didn't happen. Urban's now trademark meld of country, pop, and rock & roll connects deeply with fans, and they are nothing if not loyal. Defying Gravity is his fifth studio release, and in many ways it simultaneously builds on its predecessor while standing apart from it completely. Certainly, there are similarities in sound and approach: Urban once again worked with Dan Huff to co-produce the set, and his signature manner of layering everything from strings and drum machines to banjos, pedal steel, crisp drums, and taut, sheeny electric guitars is a sound that belongs to him alone. The other similarity is that this album is unapologetically one of redemption tomes colored as love songs in various shades and tempos -- though none of them are heartbreak songs. He co-wrote eight of Defying Gravity's 11 tracks, and arranged all of them.
That said, Capitol throws everything into the ring this time out by issuing a pair of leadoff singles in the tight little rocker "Kiss a Girl" and the shimmering, reverb-laden guitar workout "Sweet Thing," which is disguised as a midtempo power ballad. Both are 21st century equivalents of rock & roll love songs that echo everyone from Tom Petty to Greg Kihn, and even a bit of Dwight Twilley -- though this is clearly not conscious. As radio tracks, they are smart picks, especially with the clever guitar and banjo interplay -- Urban has transformed the role of the backwoods and in-the-hills instrument into a respectable part of the rock & roll toolbox. There are some proper ballads on the disc as well, such as the haunting, nocturnal, and dreamily textured "The Summer Comes Around," his nakedly emotional paean to wife Nicole Kidman ("Thank You") that closes the set, and the shuffling "Only You Can Love Me This Way." The skittering drum loop that undergirds the guitar and Rolling Stones-esque "doo-doo" chorus in "I'm In" makes it an excellent choice for a fourth single, and the clipped pedal steel, distorted electric guitars that careen in the bridge, and shuffling percussion make the finger-popping "Why It Feels So Long" feel like a contemporary country take on of one of Bruce Springsteen's boulevard songs, or John Mellencamp's "Cherry Bomb." In sum, Defying Gravity builds on the skill set that gave listeners Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing and takes it further, seamlessly combining hook-laden crafty songwriting with a pop sensibility in the modern country vernacular that blazes a new trail, underscoring Duke Ellington's dictum that there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. This is a shining case in point for the former.