26 June 2000

The Soul of Richard Ashcroft

The former leader of The Verve opens up his heart in solo debut.

"Into the brave new world," Richard Ashcroft sings in a song that swipes its title from Aldous Huxley's dark, half-century-old tale of the future. "Hope I see you on the other side." The former Verve frontman's debut album, Alone With Everybody (Virgin), comprises mostly beautiful, moody ballads, including "Brave New World." The song sets the tone of an album focused entirely on the present and the future — Richard Ashcroft is too young, and has too much to do, to dwell on the past.

During the '90s, The Verve emerged from England with a potent, undisciplined psychedelic-rock sound, refined over three epic albums — A Storm In Heaven, A Northern Soul and Urban Hymns — and a string of singles that included the amazing "Bitter Sweet Symphony," the culmination of their time together.

Ashcroft learned plenty during those years, about songwriting, about music production, about what makes a song live. Along the way, faced with a near-total absence from the British airwaves of the music he wanted to hear, he decided it was time to make some himself. Wanting to hear something on the radio that was real, something that touched his heart, he wrote such British hits as "The Drugs Don't Work," as well as the international smash "Bitter Sweet Symphony." Alone With Everybody takes it all to another level. With no need to concern himself with bandmates' opinions, Ashcroft has taken an auteur role, lovingly crafting an album full of nuanced touches, most noticeably the shimmering space-age sounds floating through most of the tracks.

Much of the disc is about love — "It's a crazy world for a mixed-up boy and a mixed-up girl," he sings in "Crazy World." "A Song for the Lovers," the leadoff track, is the first single, already a hit in England. One young woman told me she can't stop playing that song and the romantic "I Get My Beat" : "I get my beat with you/ When we see things through /And I think about you all the time." This is an album for lovers — and for everyone else who still holds out hope for something better, in their life and for this world.

"C'mon people we're making it now, yea, yea, yea/ If only you could be with us," he sings in "C'mon People (We're Making It Now)." Ashcroft has created a soundtrack for a film that doesn't exist, telling the story of two lovers trying to make their way through the modern world. "I wanna grow," he goes on in "C'mon People": "And there are so many things I can do/ Just like falling in love with you/ So take my hand now/ Understand it/ You can come here too." The album is a throwback to another time, although I'm not really sure when that might be.

What I am sure of is that Ashcroft has made timeless music, a kind of British soul music that offers up an idealism not often heard in these hard, cynical times. But don't think Marvin Gaye or Aretha when you hear "soul." When Ashcroft and others describe the music here as soul music, they mean that it is music of the soul — deep, powerful and intense.

"Brave New World," one of my favorites, begins with just a gently strummed acoustic guitar, joined quickly by drums, bass, keyboards and even a touch of pedal steel. "Hope I see you on the other side," Ashcroft repeats over and over, as the music builds.

I'll be there.
  • Source: UBL, written by Michael Goldberg