Song Review: Keith Urban, “We Were”

I’d like to think that back in the day, “We Were” a lot more interesting than this.

Country music has never been terribly kind to older artists, and now it seems that Father Time is finally coming for Keith Urban: “Coming Home” reached #3 on the airplay charts but took a lot of heat from the critical community in the process, and the #18 peak of “Never Comin’ Down” was Urban’s worst airplay showing since the last millennium. With people starting to question both his career and his legacy, Urban and his team dropped his Graffiti U album and brought out a brand new single “We Were” to stem the tide of public opinion.  Unfortunately, while the song is a  significant step up from his last few singles, the whole seems to be less than the sum of it parts, and comes across as surprisingly generic and forgettable.

The production here is a far cry from the wall of noise and bizarre beatboxing heard on “Never Comin’ Down,” opting instead for a more classic and muted feel. The song opens with a banjo driving the melody on top on a synthetic-sounding percussion line, but slowly adds the instruments we’ve all come to expect—real drums, slick electric guitars, and so on. (Once again, one of the best guitar players of his era is left mostly twiddling his thumbs on a track, as the bridge solo is only slightly more interesting than that of Randy Houser’s “No Stone Unturned.”) While there aren’t many minor chords present here, the tone is a bit darker than you might expect (even when the narrator is recounting the good times), reflecting the regret and sadness inherent in the writing. Sadly, this feels like an overcorrection from the experimentation of Urban’s last few songs, a the mix feels too run-of-the-mill to be distinct and too restrained to leave an impression on the listener. It’s a decent enough arrangement, but it’s quickly forgotten as the next song starts playing.

The writing leaves me a bit conflicted on this track, as it strikes me as the kind of song I should like, but it doesn’t hook me like I expected. Yes, the scenes and scenario are about as boilerplate as you can get (the narrator recounts their fling with an old flame, complete with the usual partying, riding around, and implied sexual acts “in Johnson’s field”), but there are some interesting/vivid details included for a change (“leather jackets hanging onto a Harley,” “water tower skyline,” etc.) that set the scene and help the listener picture things in their mind. There’s no objectification, no confusing wordplay with the hook (it’s actually pretty good), and (amazingly) no references to drinking beyond the opening “fake ID” line…so why do I find this song so darn boring? For one thing, details or no details, there isn’t that much of a story here, and the song lacks a strong thread that ties all the scenes together (they’re just snapshots that feel like they could be arranged in any order). The characters are also pretty flat here, and the narrator doesn’t give us any reason to care about their story (especially when we’ve already heard so many variations of it in the past). There’s just something (or maybe a few things) missing that put this in the ‘forgettable’ bin instead of the ‘memorable’ one, but the biggest one of all…

…is Keith Urban himself, whose performance here is surprisingly lifeless, especially coming from someone with his talent and experience. Sure, it’s tolerable on a technical level (smooth flow, easy range, solid tone throughout the track), but his delivery feels devoid of power and emotion, and he just doesn’t convince me that he’s all that regretful about this relationship ending. I react to this song the way I react to my grandfather’s stories about how the old 50s-era businesses on Main Street have all disappeared: It might be a sad story and I’m sure it hurt in the moment, but why should I care again? (Also, why is an artist that’s old enough to carry an AARP card still jonesing over what sounds like a teenage relationship, and thinking that they still might be made for each other?) Frankly, I just can’t relate to Urban’s feelings here, and he completely fails to convince his listeners to pay attention.

The best thing I can say about “We Were” is that I’m not reacting with disgust the way I was on “Coming Home” and “Never Comin’ Down,” but the worst thing I can say is that I’m not really reacting at all to this track. The production is sensible but placid, the writing feels a bit uneven, and Keith Urban just doesn’t sell this track to his audience. It’s not the kind of leadoff single you need when you’re staring at the deficit Urban has, and with many of his contemporaries facing similar problems, you have to wonder if the clock is winding down on Urban’s mainstream career.

Rating: 5/10. It’s a thing that exists, but “We Were” hoping for something better.