Monday, June 26, 2000

Spin Magazine reviews Alone With Everybody

Now that the whole Blur-Oasis rivalry is so over, America is ripe for the invasion of another bombastic British rock star. Richard Ashcroft -- he of the paper-thin lips and the cheekbones as high as the Sistine Chapel ceiling and, oh yeah, the former lead singer of the Verve -- seems like a prime candidate. He's got the requisite swagger -- remember him shoving people aside on the street in the "Bittersweet Symphony" video? And there's the cover of his new album-it's a simple black and white headshot, but with his head cocked to the side and if you squint he looks almost like Mick Jagger. But here's the funny part: Alone With Everybody isn't full of the surliness we're accustomed to from British rock stars. Rather, it's full of love. This could make for trite music, but it doesn't. Luckily for us, it results in lush, beautiful arrangements and subtle, sinuous melodies.

By the time the Verve's Urban Hymns was released in 1997, Ashcroft was the band's primary songwriter. Although the band split up for good in April last year, there's no huge loss, as there's no appreciable difference in the music. Alone with Everybody is, well, just like the Verve, only more sedate, a bit wiser, and a little less prone to psychedelic jamming. There's a renewed optimism and a sense of celebration. His voice -- like Bono in its emotional delivery (you decide if that's a good or a bad thing) -- is stronger, more confident and placed higher up in the mix. Each song is a mini-epic, lasting nearly five minutes; many surpass that. And Ashcroft packs them as much as possible -- they're complex, layered tapestries that unravel and reveal themselves with repeated listens. That he opts for real stringed instruments, rather than synthetic facsimiles, lends an organic authenticity to the whole emotionally wrought experience and helps, more often than not, to separate the mellow from the drama.

Love and its trappings pop up in almost every song. "A Song for the Lovers" is a moody, modest choice for a first single. Violins and an acoustic guitar announce its start, and the drums kick in, gradually giving it momentum. Instruments are added as the song progresses -- piano, strings, a warbling guitar line and finally, the echoing vocals. This is part of its beauty, and part of his gift: the song itself isn't terribly complicated, but it's well-appointed. "You On My Mind In My Sleep" is a straightforward ballad with piano and strings, its subject matter -- dreaming of a lover -- welcome in its simplicity and specificity. "On a Beach," which features a pedal steel guitar looped backward, has Ashcroft singing, "I'm on fire / Full of love and new desire." Could this be the same man who once sang the grandiosely defeatist chorus : "It's a bittersweet symphony, this life / Trying to make ends meet / You're a slave to the money / Then you die?" Well, probably, yes -- Ashcroft has never prized lyrical depth as highly as he has vintage aviator sunglasses --but at least his boho wigginess is plugged into an uplifting vibe this time around.

Alone with Everybody is a grand, sweeping album of heavenly melodies and rich, full textures. At times, it feels stuck in the morass of a single, sustained tempo, and there are some possible explanations. Few, if any, of the tunes are out-and-out rockers, and they work their way into your head slowly rather than immediately. Rhythmic intricacy has morphed into something more staid, and the driving psychedelic impulses are now downgraded to occasional flourishes. It's more mature -- there's less regret, self-doubt and depression. Chalk it up to the freedom of going solo, or the fact that his wife Kate Radley, who plays keyboards on the album, just gave birth to their first child. Whatever -- at least it's an enjoyable tempo. And, anyway, perhaps Ashcroft has simply found a way to feel okay about everybody for a change, himself included.
  • Source: Spin, written Carrie Havranek