A Song For The Lovers, the single that announced Richard Ashcroft's re-entry to the public domain, may well be the most ostentatious - oh alright, over-produced - single to grace the British Top 5 since Oasis's borderline ridiculous All Around The World. That its lyric roots itself in a quintessentially rock star experience - "I spent the night looking for my insides in a hotel room" - only increases the sense that its a record made behind smoking glass, well away from the earth-bound concerns of the real world. It's the first track on Alone With Everybody, and followed by a song called I Get My Beat. Mid-paced, lyrically anodyne ("I get my beat with you, when we see things through") and frosted with the kind of gospelised backing vocals that used to crop up on Paul Young records, it seals the impression that now more than ever Richard Ashcroft is comfortable with making music that strays alarmingly close to the Middle Of The Road. And, though it might seem a little churlish to seize on the presence of sometime Paul Young accomplice and 80's bass king Pino Palladino as further proof of blandout, it's a conclusion that's all but inescapable. Palladino, after all, isn't known for his contributions to Stereo Lab albums.
As the record plays, it becomes increasingly clear where Alone With Everybody is heading. It's very easy to see the foundation stones of British rock music as Revolver, Exile On Main Street, Never Mind The Bollocks and the like - something that Richard Ashcroft would presumably go along with. But there's an alternative canon that's been no less successful, best illustrated by a range of individual songs: Rod Stewart's Sailing, Forever Autumn by Justin Hayward, Paul McCartney & Wings' My Love, the more tear-stained tunes of Aztec Camera. After almost a decade reading quotes about Can, Funkadelic and Jimi Hendrix, it might come as a shock to Verve hardcore that Alone With Everybody throws up such reference points, but you could arguably hear them coming in large swathes of Urban Hymns: Lucky Man, Sonnet, Space and Time. Here, though, the comparisons are glaring. The lurch towards the musical centre was undoubtedly hastened by Ashcroft's divorce from Verve guitarist Nick McCabe (of his old compadres, only drummer Pete Salisbury is present). The unspeakably clean production is another factor. It also has something to do with the overwhelming air of bliss. Ashcrofts - awe-struck love for his wife Kate Radley drips from every note. Whatever, Alone With Everybody is the most mainstream album ever to have emerged from an artist who was once considered "alternative". By comparison, Blur are positive nihilists, Radiohead sit in the same enclosure as Fugazi, and even REM remain true to their punk roots.
OF COURSE, ONE person's gloopy MOR is another's stirring balladry. And on the few occasions when the songs are of sufficient quality, Alone With Everybody falls on just the right side of the fence. For all its over-egging, A Song For The Lovers - somewhere between Crowded House's Don't Dream It's Over and Don Henley's The Boys Of Summer - is a fine song. Brave New World, though hardly up there with The Drugs Don't Work, is a fairly accomplished sliver of lovelorn songwriting, only sullied by the triple rhyming of "table, "able" and "stable". Moreover when Ashcroft ups the ante and takes his muse into hitherto unexplored areas - essentially, fast(ish) songs - he produces two of the album's highlights. Crazy World is a morass of lyrical cliche ("it's a crazy world/for a mixed up boy and mixed up girl") but it's a lithe, unquestionably uplifting thing. And C'mon People (We're Making It Now) is yet more vivacious: an unashamedly mainstream power pop song that shares it's rhythm, reliance on piano and air of sparkle with The New Radicals' You Only Get What You Give. Again, Verve fans might splutter, but that's the kind of record this is.
The problems come with the remainder of the albums ballads. You On My Mind (In My Sleep) is not only lifted from the both The Faces' Ooh La La and the Stones' Wild Horses, but built on the flimsiest of musical conceits: precious little vocal melody, an endlessly repeated riff that quickly grates, and embellishments that number among the most corny on offer - the seemingly unending employment of BJ Cole's pedal steel quickly proves to be of the album's most icky features. Slow Was My Heart - the most glaring example of Ashcroft's liking for post - 50's Elvis - only repeats the mixture of drab composition and unbelievably syrupy arrangement. And when Ashcroft runs completely short of inspiration, he ends up plagiarising himself. On A Beach rather ludicrously uses a shipwreck as a metaphor for existential crisis - in verse two, Ashcroft builds a "bamboo boat" - and is a pretty see-through re-write of Lucky Man. Only not nearly as good. Worse still, nearly all these songs follow a blue print that rapidly palls. Most of them are over five minutes long. The compositions that lie at their heart are usually done and dusted in half that time whereupon the music falls into a shapeless mass of ad libs and piled-on overdubs. The adjectives prompted by such an approach are hardly the stuff of rapture: "bilious" is probably the most apposite word that springs to mind.
Seasoned Verve disciples can only seek solace in New York, a juddering paean to the Big Apple that sounds like a more strait-laced relative of The Rolling People from Urban Hymns. Here, however, any chance of mystic transcendence is quickly scuppered by the lyrics. Not only does the chorus celebrate a "big city of dream", but the verses are prosaic beyond words. "There's no time to unpack here," sings Ashcroft, "lets get straight out on the street/And lose our inhibitions". By rights, it should then go "the buildings are very big, you get much more cheese in your sandwiches and the Calvin Klein undies are really cheap". Soon after that, we're back to undistinguished musical sage - indeed, the album's eventual finale is a six minutes-plus song called Everybody that's the very embodiment of it's shortcomings. And despite the odd break froma pretty depressing norm, the unpalatable mixture of unnecessary grandiosity and pronounced underachievement - and, predictably, the former only throws the latter into sharper relief - remains the album's hallmark.
Quite what caused such a calamity is a moot point. Was it Ashcroft's lifelong self-belief mutating into hubris? The lack of checks and balances that comes with life as a solo artist? The fact that domestic bliss rarely leads to earth-shattering rock music?.
Time will probably tell. For now, Richard Ashcroft probably needs to track down some more wayward collaborators, take a crash-course in musical economy, and come up with something in the same ballpark as Bittersweet Symphony. Alone With Everybody has its moments, but it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that the man who wrote the song has ended up sounding like a candidate for the next Tarzan soundtrack. And who, really, wanted that to happen?.
- Source: Q Magazine, written by John Harris