MANSFIELD — Keith Urban had one directive for himself when he began work on his forthcoming album, “Fuse,” due out Tuesday: experimentation.
Over the last 15 years, the New Zealand-born, Australia-bred country superstar has steadily climbed to the top of the heap in Nashville, racking up 14 No. 1 hits — including “Days Go By” and “You’ll Think of Me” — while selling millions of albums and winning a truckload of awards. He’s earned the admiration of peers and critics in the country, rock, and pop worlds for his accomplished axe work and sensitive songwriting.
So for his seventh outing, he was ready to shake things up a bit.
“The goal was to put myself and my abilities in new surroundings to see what could happen with it,” says Urban, lounging on a bench in the front room of his tour bus backstage at the Comcast Center, prior to his recent show here. “Specifically, I wanted to collaborate with people who weren’t trying to do something they thought would work in Nashville. Because I wasn’t trying to do something that I thought would work outside of Nashville. I just wanted everyone to do what they do and see if we could find a way to fuse it together, which is really where the title of the album started to come from.”
Urban tried to mind-meld with collaborators both old and new, from well-respected Nasvhille names like Dann Huff (Faith Hill, Rascal Flatts) and Jay Joyce (Little Big Town, Eric Church) to those better known for their work in the pop and hip-hop worlds, like Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Maroon 5), Stargate (Rihanna, Katy Perry), and artist-songwriter producer Butch Walker (Pink, Fall Out Boy). He also invited friends Eric Church and Miranda Lambert into the studio to share the microphone.
That willingness to head outside his comfort zone but not go off the deep end is part of what makes Urban special, says Walker.
“I was such a fan of his guitar playing that I wanted to get in the studio and see if we could get around that whole slick country Nashville tired approach to making pop country records they’ve done for the last 15 years,” he says of the four tracks he and Urban coproduced.
“Keith is smart, he knows his audience. He can’t alienate them. But they like him for who he is, not necessarily the production, so we said, let’s make something that sounds a little bit more organic and rough around the edges and let him rip on the guitar a little bit. To me, Keith is a pop star. He’s an organic, countrified pop star, and that’s a compliment.”
The result of all that fusion finds Urban heading down country roads as well as urban sidewalks as he investigates how his beloved banjo fits in beside drum machines.
“The way I look at it is, I make music,” he says. “I just like all kinds of tempos, grooves, themes, styles, and sounds, and they all go together to make up whatever it is that I do, my kind of music. And I just wanted to expand that, that’s really it. I wasn’t trying to make a pop album. I wasn’t trying to make any particular genre album. I was just trying to expand my sound to new areas, and the thing that for me always connects everything is songs. And I make no apologies for loving hooks in songs. I love catchy choruses, I love guitar riffs, I love singalong moments, and I love rhythm and groove.”
There are plenty of all of the above to be found on “Fuse.” Urban shared his thoughts on the inspirations, meanings, and stories behind a few of the tracks.
On the masterful “Heart Like Mine” — a seductive, rhythmic piano ballad that is a rush of melody, cooing background vocals, and pathos co-written by Urban and Walker — the singer is in confessional mode about being a “son of a son of a headstrong man” and conveying an image of a child in a corner “watching words as they turn black and blue.”
“I tend to find my stories are drawn out by the music more than anything,” he says. “It’s really a breaking-the-cycle song. I’d like people to be able to find their own relativity to that, but it’s something that we all have to do, figure out what do we carry on from our family of origin? And what is not working for us, and are we willing to change our behavior?”
On the dreamy “Come Back to Me,” written by Shane McAnally, Brandy Clark, and Trevor Rosen, Urban’s protagonist is advocating the “if you love someone set them free” mentality over woozy keys and a crunchy drum groove.
Something in the tune reminded him of a song that Prince wrote for late ’80s teen star Martika called “Love . . . Thy Will Be Done.” “I always loved that song, and it starts with this drum machine and it never stops. There’s no cymbals, there’s no tom-toms. It never stops, and I loved that monotony and linearity in the foundation of the track. I played Butch the Prince track and I said, ‘Can we somehow go there with that song?’”
In the funny-but-heartfelt “Cop Car,” sure to be a concert favorite with its anthemic backing vocals, a man admires the gutsy chick with whom he’s landed in the back seat of the titular vehicle.
“It’s a particular fetish, isn’t it?” says Urban with a laugh. “I could definitely relate to the guy in that song. I’ve dated a girl just like this, a complete nut, going crazy in the back seat of the cop car. Just the whole scene, I so got it. I thought, ‘What a great place to write a song from.’ ”
Given that Eric Church is his duet partner, “Raise ’Em Up” is surprisingly mellow. “I was really glad he wanted to come and do it,” he says of Church, whose profile has risen dramatically since the release of his 2011 album “Chief.”
“The reason I love the song so much is all the ways [the phrase] ‘raise ’em up’ is used. From the obvious things like children and toastings and things like that, but particularly the patriotism of the raising of the flag and the recognition of the people who’ve passed on in funeral settings. There’s just such a deep, beautiful, broad palette of images that the song created, and it’s a very cinematic song. There’s an Americana cinematic thing to Eric. He’s an indie, cinematic, mainstream country artist, is how I describe Eric. He was the right guy.”
And Miranda Lambert was the right girl for the sassy “We Were Us.”
“She and [husband] Blake [Shelton] came to the studio and spent a few hours hanging out, and it was really cool. This song was written as a duet, and she was the first person I thought of. She opened some shows for us years ago, and she would get up and sing a song with me. And I always remembered our voices blending really well together. So in the back of my mind I’d always hoped we’d find a song to do. And this song came, and there was nobody else.”
Looking back on the process, Urban chuckles. “It was a big body of work. I recorded over 20 songs, which I culled down to 16, and it was eight different producers, nine different mix engineers, and a year and half-plus of studio recording.”
But working on the album, Urban says, also turned out to be a good balance for his inaugural season on “American Idol,” in which he was often the comic relief for the tension between judges Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey. Not to mention one of the most articulate critics of the musical aspects of a performance. “It put things in perspective,” he said of recording by day and critiquing by night.
He’s looking forward to the upcoming season with two just-announced fellow judges, returnee Jennifer Lopez and newbie Harry Connick Jr.
“I feel like from last year I can work with really anybody,” he says with a laugh.