Monday, June 21, 2010

A track-by-track review of 'United Nations of Sound'

It’s much easier than it should be to dislike Richard Paul Ashcroft – on form, after all, he’s a genius songwriter, responsible for some of the most anthemic, heartfelt singalongs of his generation. Off form, though, he gets lost inside the maze of his own ego, his arrogance blurring the line between brilliant and bland.

The Verve comeback album of two years ago was one such misstep – will his latest project, the absurdly-titled RPA and The United Nations Of Sound, see a return to the songwriting form of old, or continue to venture down the path of predictability? Niall Doherty finds out that ‘United Nations Of Sound’ is anything but what you expect…

‘Are You Ready’

Exploding into life with bombastic Bond-strings, ‘Are You Ready’ sees Ashcroft launch straight into the Big Subjects; “Are you ready/Are you ready for the day/He’s gonna come back down to earth/I hope you’re gonna pray/that you’re with us.” With anyone else, you’d assume they’d found God. But this is Richard Ashcroft, which means he’s probably just found himself. The rest of the song swirls, the heartswell of the Albert Hall-sized strings lending the album’s opening track an arrogant, epic swagger, Ashcroft repeating the title so much that you actually start to question whether you’ll ever be ready for anything ever again. It ends about three minutes too late with a Pete Townsend-esque solo screech, raising the intriguing possibility that Ashcroft himself isn’t ready, either…

‘Born Again’

Dickie sings of resurrection in the open lines of ‘Born Again’, which struts on a glammed-up 70s dancefloor groove that’s somewhere between Abba and Bee Gees. Yep, after the dreariness of The Verve’s comeback album, here Ashcroft seems to be discovering a more ridiculously poppy side to his music than he’s ever shown before. It’s actually a bit camp, especially when he croaks “One life, one life!” over Hey Jude-esque “na na na’s” at the climax. Ooooh, climax!

‘America’

Ok, this IS ridiculous. The beginning of ‘America’ sees Ashcroft tap into his inner madman (can’t be that hard, can it?) as different sides of him spar with each other; there’s a Harmonising Ashcroft, a Rapping Ashcroft (this one sounds waaaay too similar to Speak The Hungarian Rapper – “The universal language, this is music”) and a falsetto-voiced scatting Ashcroft preceding cascading strings and a stomping r’n’b beat. Then there’s the main vocal, which we’ll call Growling Pervert Ashcroft – he sounds like the bloke from Alabama 3 with a massive hangover hard-on. There’s no denying ‘America’’s Big Music credentials, though – the power chords in its chorus are straight from the Van Halen Guide To Conquering The 80s. (NB – I just listened to this again and should also say when the vocals come in, it slightly resembles Flight Of The Conchords’ ‘Boom Time’.)

‘This Thing Called Life’

Musically, ‘This Thing Called Life’ treads a much more familiar Ashcroft path than anything on ‘United Nations Of Sound’, its alt.country glide bringing to mind the softer sides of ‘Alone With Everybody’. For someone who can do a heartfelt croon with the best of ‘em, though, the vocal is oddly aggressive and, as such, at odds with the dadrock breeze of the music. “You gotta learn the drugs don’t really work,” he sings in a nice little nod to the past.

‘Beatitude’

A Timbaland-esque mechanic march and some industrial stabs of guitar begin ‘Beatitude’. “This is the beatitudes/This is the gospel truth,” goes the chorus, Ashcroft sounding more and more like the fella who stands outside Oxford Circus tube with a Jesus sandwich board. Most of the songs so far on ‘United Nations Of Sound’ sound as if they’re being powered by rage – maybe that impenetrable ego was finally dented by the lukewarm reaction to The Verve’s reunion, eh? One of the best songs so far, ‘Beatitude’ ditches the psychedelic strings and builds around a viciously wicked rock riff.

‘Good Loving’

More r’n’b-esque beats grind behind Brian Wilson-y strings on ‘Good Loving’, where Ashcroft sounds at his most traditional – i.e. there’s no scatting or rapping on it. A fairly straightforward album track, ‘Good Loving’ does suffer slightly for ‘United Nation Of Sounds’’ kitchen-sink attitude to instrumentation – something a bit more stripped-back might have revealed a more tender side to ‘Good Loving’’s yearning, melancholic melody…

‘How Deep Is Your Man’

A burst of fuzzy blues guitar blast opens the garage-y ‘How Deep Is Your Man’, Ashcroft employing cool-as-fuck Lou Reed-esque vocals before a surging, fevered chorus. “How deep is your man? Has he got the Steve McQueen vibe?” go the lyrics at one point. Yep, he’s prob talking about himself again. It loses its way slightly towards the end and does sound a teeny bit like a scuzzed-up version of George Michael’s ‘Freedom’. Oops!

‘She Brings Me The Music’

Plaintive piano and an accompanying acoustic guitar make the start of ‘She Brings Me The Music’ sound like a distant cousin of Manics’ ‘Little Baby Nothing’. ‘United Nations Of Sound’'s first proper ballad sees a croon of “She brings me the music/And now I’m floating in the sound” over the top of slow-building strings. There’s a bit of Bacharach-esque classic pop going on here, too – in fact, songs like this make you wish he’d stop dicking around with songs about the world and the universe, cos when Richard Ashcroft sings about a girl, he stops sounding like a patronising nobjockey and becomes an attention-grabbing wise old head…

‘Royal Highness’

Back to the ridiculousness! BIG fucking strings, a baggy drumbeat and a guitar riff so blaxploitationally hip-swivelling that I hope he wore hot pants when he recorded it. The perverted croak returns, too. His voice sounds like all those joints might have finally worn away at the vocal chords, giving way to his new-found perverted persona. Ah well, could lead to a new nickname, eh? He’s no longer Mad Richard – he’s Randy Richard. ‘Royal Highness’ is great fun – when he sings “I wanna ride in my mind,” you feel half tempted to join him. I’d bring a sick bag though – lots of up’n’downs in there I imagine…

‘Glory’

Starting off with an acoustic strum not dissimilar to ‘Sonnet’, ‘Glory’’s slow drum pound lifts up the soporific country twang of its melody. “Out of the black/Into the blue/Out of the old/Into the new” goes the simplistic lyrical couplet at its centre. One of the simplest and effortlessly executed things on the record, and all the better for it.

‘Life Can Be So Beautiful’

A Bee Gees-falsetto is Richard’s voice of choice on ‘Life Can Be So Beautiful’, where elegantly lush strings pirouette around a syncopated drumbeat. The lyrics are Ashcroft-by-numbers, though – the sort of “Life can be so wonderful/Life can be so beautiful” and “This is the life/The life I live” niceties that made his second and third solo albums as predictable as an England goalkeeper with the ball heading straight for his hands…

‘Let My Soul Rest’

Big Strings - check! Big “Are You With Me?” declarations – check! Big Sentiment! Big Album Closer – check! ‘Let My Soul Rest’ ends ‘United Nations Of Sound’ on a string-swelling, singalong euphoric high, like Spiritualized soundtracking The Lion King. A wonderful ending, ‘Let My Soul Rest’ encapsulates everything that’s great about Richard Ashcroft – only he, after all, could pit a lone voice against an orchestra of about 5000 people and STILL outvoice it. A strong, triumphant ending to ‘United Nations Of Sound’.
  • Source: The Fly, written by Niall Doherty
  • Kudos: mayfield