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Keith Urban's life has been tumultuous, to say the least, since the release of his last album, 2006's "Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing." His stint at the Betty Ford Center to treat alcohol addiction, the strain that put on his brand-new marriage to Nicole Kidman, her decision to stand by him, the birth last year of their first child -- all cast a giant spotlight on the music in "Defying Gravity," his first album since all the drama went down.
The new collection, due out Tuesday, provides a fascinating look inside the male psyche, in particular that of someone who's trying to strike a balance between maintaining the public persona that made him one of country music's biggest stars and being an artist honestly expressing his too-human failings.
The opening salvo from the album, the single "Sweet Thing," is classic Urban. This is the guy who has sold millions of singles, albums and concert tickets over the last decade by fulfilling the role of the ideal -- or idealized -- boyfriend/husband: romantic, thoughtful, communicative, vulnerable but not excessively needy, a bit dangerous yet unrelentingly focused on his loved one.
Like so many of his hits, "Sweet Thing" is consistently catchy, stuffed with lyrical, melodic and instrumental hooks, twangy enough for country radio but accessible to mainstream pop fans with drum loops and smart 21st century production touches.
That Keith Urban is front and center in several tracks that are assembled masterfully, but ring slightly hollow in the context of his life. "Kiss a Girl" prizes commitment over indulgence in fleeting pleasures; "Hit the Ground Runnin'," one of three songs he didn't have a hand in writing, serves up a peppy vow: He'll not let the object of his affections go out of his life easily.
"If Ever I Could Love" and "My Heart Is Open" acknowledge past heartbreak but skirt the fallout with proclamations that a new love won't let him down. In these moments, there's a nagging feeling Urban's hiding behind a mask, one he's exceedingly comfortable wearing.
Things get more interesting when he lets down that mask, conceding that there might be times when he'll have to take more than he can give and when even the best relationships fall into crisis.
" 'Til Summer Comes Around" is a moody piece centering on a love interest who disappeared without explanation. "Why's It Feel So Long" explores a similar theme; despite the song's breezy, quasi-Caribbean lilt and plucky banjo, there's an air of desperation in Urban's lyrics when he explores the unease that sets in after a lover's departure.
He turns to Radney Foster and Georgia Middleman for "I'm In," which has Urban conceding that love is "scary business," but nonetheless "I'll show you how good it can be."
The album ends with "Thank You," perhaps the most directly revealing track Urban has written (this one in collaboration with Rick Nowels): "By the time I knew that I was in too deep, I'd gone too far / And the light that used to guide me had faded from my heart," he sings.
The song turns briefly, atypically, self-centered ("When the rain started falling / You know it only fell on me"), but the signature break in his voice is touchingly credible.
It's a welcome moment of honesty, a rare glimpse behind Urban's mask.