The Verve's third and presumably final era (2007-2009) yielded a quality Verve album-- it's just that it was made by the Big Pink. The success of the London duo's A Brief History of Love proved there was still a demand for those bygone qualities-- anthemic choruses, stadium-rattling drums, and a cosmic grandeur-- that made the Verve's Urban Hymns a late-1990s totem. Alas, those qualities were at a premium on the Verve's own unfocused 2008 comeback effort, Forth. Whether or not singer Richard Ashcroft was taking notes on his Big Pink progeny, he's responded to Verve v. 3.0's aborted mission with an album of excitable, populist electro-soul. But if Forth sounded like a half-hearted attempt to recapture the early Verve's free-form spirit, Ashcroft's maiden voyage with his new band, RPA & the United Nations of Sound, is sunk by a grating, calculated over-eagerness to please.
Listening to United Nations of Sound, it becomes increasingly clear that the Verve's recurring cycle of make-ups and break-ups probably has less to do with the notoriously thorny relationship between Ashcroft and guitarist Nick McCabe, and more to do with providing Ashcroft with a rebirth narrative for his subsequent solo ventures. Just as his 2000 solo debut, Alone With Everybody, hinged on the leaf-turning track "Brave New World", United Nations of Sound arrives with a Sunday-school sermon's worth of resurrection rhetoric that conflates Ashcroft's return with that of J.C. himself.
Ashcroft's next coming is heralded by dense, busy productions-- courtesy of Kanye West associate No ID-- that draw as much from the slow-jam grind of modern R&B and the six-string squeal of 1980s hair-metal as the lush 70s orchestro-soul that the singer favors. Yet for all of Ashcroft's messianic posturing, these songs are all dressed up with nothing to say. The initially momentous opener "Are You Ready"-- essentially the Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony" cross-wired with Primal Scream's "Loaded"-- has already played its hand halfway through its six-minute run, leaving Ashcroft to repeat variations on the title ad nauseum before yielding to an inconsequential extended guitar solo. Elsewhere, he sounds like he's expending more energy on investing every ad-libbed "ooh" and "yeah" with forced profundity than on his songwriting-- on two tracks ("Born Again", "This Thing Called Life") he lazily opts out of completing a four-line stanza to let out a phlegmy "aaahhhnnn." And this is to say nothing of the songs that turn out to be every bit as ill-advised as their titles (the chest-pumping tech-rocker "Beatitudes", the toothless John Lee Hooker rip "How Deep Is Your Man").
Ashcroft's most affecting songs-- from "The Drugs Don't Work" to "On Your Own" to "Make It Till Monday"-- were borne of personal but easily relatable experiences. He's still capable of dignified, understated performances (see: the string-swirled "Good Lovin'"), but on United Nations of Sound, he too often tries to take the fast track to universal appeal, routinely dropping blank-slate slogans-- "this is the universal language, this is music!"; "Out of the old/ Into the new"; "One life! One nation! Music! Dedication!"-- that, in their fervent desire to speak to everyone, speak to no one. "All together now," Ashcroft commands of us during a "Hey Jude"-style "na na na na na" breakdown in "Born Again"-- but that extra encouragement serves only to remind us of a time when Ashcroft didn't need to prod us to sing along with him.
- Source: Pitchfork, written by Stuart Berman