Friday, August 21, 2009

#132. 'You can't fence that in'

Couldn't find an embeddable copy of the video so here's a link to that.
Keith Urban "Stupid Boy"

By virtue of my city's hick nature I'm exposed to a lot more country music than I'd like to be. I live in what might as well be the Canadian equivalent of the southern United States: heavily conservative, full of beer-drinkin', cowboy hat-wearin' good ol' boys, where bush parties invariably involve someone driving a truck into the river. It's a hick town at its heart and we love our country music here. I'm not down on the entire genre though, just the aspects of it that have risen to prominence over the last decade. The patriotism, the appropriation of hip hop's braggadocio (no, thank you Big & Rich!,) the endless streams of maudlin balladry, Rascal fucking Flatts...none of it makes the genre look all that appealing to an outsider like myself.

The major issue I have though is that somewhere along the line most of the more popular artists seem to have said 'fuck it' and stopped bothering to try and differentiate themselves sonically. Listening to a country countdown show is like being shown to a buffet where everything may look different but it all winds up tasting the same. The vast majority of the genre gets wrapped up with exactly the same production style: heavy on the twangy guitar, light pedal steel and other 'authentic' country instruments added almost as an afterthought, vocals mixed so high that they're all you can hear all under an obnoxious pop sheen. So 9 times out of 10 the only thing that differentiates one song from another is the vocalist, otherwise you might as well be listening to the same band over and over again.

Of course there are exceptions, and we'll get to many of them later, but I've never thought of Keith Urban as being one of them. His early singles were always...pleasant is probably the best word for them. I never had any huge stake in them but I didn't groan upon hearing them either. They were prime examples of the hegemony of country radio through and through but Urban's genial manner put them in the top tier of that stuff. Even when he got to the ballads he didn't grate my nerves, which is quite remarkable. There's a tendency for male country singers to use the ballads that invariably wind up on their plate as vessels for over-emoting and vocal histrionics, basically the country music version of those painfully obvious "Oscar moments" you'll see in movies. Urban pulled them off better than most, mainly by not going for the obvious melodrama and keeping it low key and fairly subtle.

"Stupid Boy" is easily the best example of how Urban would take what would have been overwrought in most of his peers' hands and turning it into something much more effective by toning it down. I can imagine if this had been handed off to, say, Rascal Flatts that the defeated 'Stupid boy' admonishments in the pre-chorus would be full of unnecessary vocal runs and probably drenched in sappy strings so as to ensure that the listener really gets just how damn sad the song is. In Urban's hands they're so much simpler, shrugged off chiding instead of vocal olympics contenders. The whole song benefits from this approach, so that even when the last chorus twists it from third to first person (such an overdone little trick, especially in country music) it's almost tossed off like an afterthought as opposed to being hammered home as the point of the entire song. As it is it's an unbelievably devastating portrait of the worst kind of relationship any girl could find themselves in, all delivered without the melodramatic trappings any other artist would imbue it with. Of course on the full version there's a bit of that during the extended outro (I'll get to that part in a bit) but otherwise it's all delivered in a very matter of fact manner, not without emotion but with the emotion kept in check.

It's also a great bit of songwriting from relative unknown Sara Buxton. The situation in the song is one that's seen over and over again, but it's dealt with so deftly, both in Buxton's writing and Urban's delivery, that it feels that much more real than any number of other songs that deal with a situation like this. It's pretty well laid put in the chorus, but there's a lot of incisive observations in the verses and the whole package comes together to make for an indelible and complete picture of emotional abuse. There's also a bit of ambiguity as to what the outcome is. I was talking with a friend of mine about it one day a while back and he was adamant that the girl in the song killed herself to get out of her situation whereas I was sure she just finally got up the courage to run from it. Of course now that the seed had been planted I can see where he's coming from in his theory, but either interpretation works with the lyrics as presented. The part at the end, which I'm guessing was cut from the single version, tips it a bit more firmly into the suicide theory, as Urban finally lets go vocally all but begging to reverse the way things went. Given how collected he'd been in the song proper it's easier to imagine the levels of grief he reashes as a reaction to suicide as opposed to the girl he destroyed finally running away.

The outro also illustrates one of Urban's other secret weapons: the fact that on top of being a capable and engaging vocalist he's also a great fucking guitar player. Country music indulges in guitar solos with clinical precision a lot of the time, letting a studio musician go for an 8 bar run at the same point in each song just before the third verse/chorus, and a lot of Urban's songs are no different. Here however we get a full 2 minute outro solo from Urban that's completely unprecedented by the rest of the song. It's a shame really that singles being what they are this part was probably excised from the radio version (although it is in the song's video) since it's as good a showcase for Urban the guitar player as the song preceding it was for Urban the vocalist.

Coming up tomorrow: An entry that'll probably wind up as an album discussion more than a song one, but we shall see or the proper way to layer your instruments.

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