Rock singers don't come much more messianic than Richard Paul Ashcroft. Introduced by Chris Martin at Live 8 as "the best singer in the world", he has compared himself to Nostradamus, and he once told an interviewer he could fly. Since then, the Verve have split up yet again, but their lead singer's ego hasn't landed – and he is taking messianic rock to its logical conclusion.
"Are you ready for the day he's gonna come back to earth/ I hope you're gonna pray," RPA whoops in tonight's opener, Are You Ready, which repeats the question so many times you fear that by the time the audience are actually ready they'll need a priest. He introduces the next song, Born Again, by claiming "I'm born again", and some of the new tunes from the United Nations of Sound – a group of top American soul players, with Kate Radley, Ashcroft's wife, banging a tambourine – contain so many religious references it can only be a matter of time before he dons a cassock.
However, it's less likely that Ashcroft has actually found God – or American gospel – than some new metaphors in his career-long, er, crusade to demonstrate that music is power, man. Some of the lyrics sound tongue-in-cheek. A song called How Deep Is Your Man is surely (surely?!) designed to arouse titters. ("About two inches!" someone shouts.) But though lyrics asking to be healed and describing an ascent of Jacob's ladder might seem ludicrous on paper, Ashcroft's self-belief and charisma makes some of them sound compelling. Punching the air, making crucifixion poses and initiating clapalongs, this man could convince an audience that there was a biblical text on the back of a jar of marmalade.
The new material borrows just that bit too heavily from classic songs (the Stones' Sympathy for the Devil, John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom, Lynyrd Skynyrd's Free Bird), and isn't a radical departure from Ashcroft's earlier solo stuff. But there's something affecting about the simple power of his voice and six strings. The crowd singalongs that accompany the Verve's Lucky Man and Sonnet suggest Ashcroft should one day record an acoustic album backed by a huge crowd. And the band's take on Lonely Soul, a collaboration with UNKLE, is astonishing. Ashcroft's best lyrics were rooted in mortality, loneliness and depression – his father's death, struggle in Wigan, personal betrayal – and he is understandably seeking to express something more joyous now.
But as the atmosphere is shattered by the zany sexual soul of Royal Highness, you start to question whether replacing the intuitive Verve with muso guitarists that grimace during shrieking solos will offer salvation. RPA still makes a fine messiah, but you fear the United Nations of Sound may fall on stony ground.
- Source: The Guardian, written by Dave Simpson
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