For many Americans outside the Country Music fan base, Keith Urban was not a household name when he married actress and fellow Aussie Nicole Kidman in June 2006. When just four months after their celebrated in nuptials, Urban, a recovering substance abuser by his own admission, suffered another relapse and after an intervention of friends and family checked himself into Betty Ford, his future as an artist and that of his marriage to the already once-bitten Kidman (she was married to actor Tom Cruise for eleven years before their sudden and still detail-murky divorce) seemed to hang in the balance. But he recovered with dignity, has thrived in both his personal and professional life, and cut two LPs since, the latest being Get Closer.
As a long-time fan, it pains me to open this article talking about Urban’s demons and but for their impact on his musical direction it would be none of my business. It is also too bad that it was under this cloud that his name became more recognized outside his original fan base, for this is a man who has struggled harder, suffered more setbacks, and yet all along possessed more raw talent and musical virtuosity than most artists in any musical genre, let alone country music. That he was a transplanted Aussie trying for years to break into the parochial Nashville scene beyond doing session work (for which he was renowned), and all the rejection and frustration this implies, makes his ultimate achievement of music super-stardom that much more worthy of praise. It also explains his tortured past where drugs and alcohol were often all he could turn to during the lean, lonely years. The contrast of his years of clawing his way to the top of the music scene vis-à-vis the coronation of twenty-something American Idol insta-stars needs no comment. I mean no disrespect to Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood among others, for they deserve their accolades. But Keith’s success has come through the old-fashioned dues-paying route and so garners more respect in my book.
One can follow his personal journey of ups and downs through his many albums, starting in 1999 with his eponymous first solo release that contains such soul-searching tunes as Out on My Own and his first hit But for the Grace Of God. His work is, in fact, a mirror held up to himself. He even tackles his own battle with addiction in the haunting You’re Not My God (from his second LP, Golden Road). Urban’s anthology also offers us happier glimpses of the bubbling optimism that exudes from his persona in Live to Love Another Day, Better Life and the wonderful God’s Been Good to Me (my favorite tune from my personal favorite 2004 album, Be Here).
A rather dramatic moment came in February of 2007 when Urban, fresh out of rehab, appeared on Saturday Night Live. He stood before us a contrite looking, humbled man, with a genuine desire to right any pains he’d caused those closest to him. Belting out his passionate rendition of Sarah Buxton’s introspective Stupid Boy from his aptly titled Love Pain & The Whole Crazy Thing it was clear that this was a man on a mission to live a better life.
And so he has. Urban has shown that indeed love conquers all. He will tell anyone who cares to listen that his wife Nicole “saved his life” and he means that quite literally as well as metaphorically. His latest release, Get Closer, is a series of love letters to her.
Get Closer is a solid album with great guitar work (naturally) and some pleasing melodies, but it is not without demerits. Mainly, after three or four songs in a row in which he professes his love for his wife, and, well, just being in love, it gets a little much. Certainly I would caution diabetics to listen at their own risk. I mean, it wouldn’t have killed him after finishing Put You In A Song, Without You, and All For You to lay down a few tracks that talk about trucks, trains, or antlers, would it? He is, after all, a country singer. Even such a cool tune as Georgia Woods, in which he echoes the Marshall Tucker Band in his wailing guitar work, is somewhat diminished by it being, yet again, a love song. Come on bro. You’re still a man, man! Hit me with another Where The Blacktop Ends or Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me once in a while. Don’t forget your fans who still got a pair.
Maybe I’m just not a hopeless romantic, but in this latest CD which seems an extension of his penultimate Defying Gravity (they could have been a two-record set even) I sometimes wonder if he’s putting himself too much out there. A man has to keep a little bit of himself for himself… if anything to prevent from being too vulnerable during the inevitable rough patches that all relationships encounter. Life can still be harsh as Urban of all people should know.
But Keith has defied the odds his entire adulthood so if anyone can make what he describes as a “happy place in my life” last, it’s him. He owes his wife a life debt and he knows it. This is a powerful incentive to put her above himself, which he clearly does if his music is any guide. And she in turn seems to have found serenity in the arms of a man who, by all accounts, is a very affable guy who has found true love after all these years.
It is rare to encounter such talent, humility, and decency among the super-star elites. Perhaps that is the medium of Country Music, which by its nature is more approachable, but I think it’s just the way Keith Urban rolls. So keep rolling on, brother, and enjoy the well-earned ride. Good on ya, mate.
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[On a personal note: my wife and I can attest to what a down-to-earth guy he is. During her birthday present concert, Urban took time out from his set to acknowledge her special day and even give her a congratulatory hug while a very secure husband (so she thinks) looked on in gratitude.]