As a genre, country music doesn’t mean the same thing it used to. Whilst it’s entirely normal for a genre to shift and alter itself as tastes and environments change, country has done so in a particularly strange way. Mainstream country music now bears little resemblance to the sounds of the genre’s origins, instead having become another variation on pop music. It’s an odd space for a genre founded on a sense of grit and “outlaw” ideals, which are often broadly called “alternative country” when released today. Of course, most genres of music eventually transition to pop music (rock and hip-hop have both certainly done it), and much of the music created through this is excellent, but it’s records like Ripcord that demonstrate the potential problems with this dichotomy.
Ripcord combines the blandest qualities of its respective genres, creating an uncomfortable mishmash of styles, which end up feeling scattered and confused. Urban has been selling this as his most “experimental” record, and it’s easy to see where he’s coming from, but in this case, “experimental” largely means “poppy”. Once again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but Urban has chosen a particularly anonymous brand of pop to infuse into his music. The worst offender by far is Sun Don’t Let Me Down. In spite of featuring playing from the esteemed Nile Rodgers, the faceless, distorted guitar-riff in the chorus sounds like an imitation of summer-pop, without any of the lightness that makes that music accessible. Said guitar-line is replaced by a circular banjo part in the verses, lending the track the sensation that it’s constantly switching genres. Pitbull also contributes a very on-brand verse, with vapid lyrics like “time is money and I ain’t wastin’ no time / so fill my cup with Voli, water and lime”.
Other tracks on the record skew much closer to traditional country music, such as John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16. The track is built around a funky bassline and strummed acoustic guitars, and the lyrics lean very heavily into traditional country signifiers. However, these lyrics largely come across as a simple list of clichés, with lines like “just another rebel in the great wide open on the boulevard of broken dreams” feeling particularly forced. The album is split between country and pop tracks by a ratio of roughly 50/50, and it creates the sensation that Urban has no concept for the record, and simply threw together a bunch of ill-fitting songs. Several of the tracks are quite catchy, like the poppy Wasted Time, but even stronger tracks like it are let down by poor lyrics (that track has the same fundamental concept as Started From the Bottom, only delivered with more clichés). Ultimately, Ripcord sounds like a record that exists in limbo, torn between the two audiences it wants to please, but nonetheless impressing neither.