24 March 2011

Former Verve Frontman Takes On a New Sound

 Though it's been out in the U.K. since July, this week Richard Ashcroft's "United Nations of Sound" (Razor & Tie) will finally be available in the U.S. When you listen to it, you'll wonder why it took so long to arrive. It's home to big, ambitious rock with sheets of guitars, and swirling strings under cryptic lyrics delivered by Mr. Ashcroft with throaty fervor, invoking his music with the Verve as well as his solo outings. In pursuit of urban grit, Mr. Ashcroft brought in as producer No I.D., who has worked with Common, Kanye West and Jay-Z. Thus the album also presents the 39-year-old Mr. Ashcroft singing in falsetto over synthesized beats and rapping with his voice buried deep in the mix.

United Nations of Sound - U.S. cover
If "United Nations of Sound" doesn't compare in quality to the Verve's best-seller, "Urban Hymns," it's at least an interesting effort by a musician who does what he wants, at the risk of having some U.K. fans and critics treat the disc as if it were Rod Stewart's latest. "What a waste," reported the Guardian. NME said, "You don't have to see one of the all-time rock 'n' roll greats fish for his mojo in a swamp." Oh my.

"This is my trip," Mr. Ashcroft said by phone recently. He was at home in Richmond, outside London. "I wasn't trying to placate anyone. I don't appease people."

To say Mr. Ashcroft is chatty or confident doesn't quite capture it. He's the ideal interview—one question and he's off. The harsh reviews mean nothing to him, he said, when reviewers live in the past. "You can get addicted to gossip and negativity, but I don't partake in that side of life. Many people foolishly believe it was me and me alone that disbanded a great band," he said of the Verve, which had two No. 1 albums and several hit singles in the U.K. He compared some reviewers to people who watch Formula One racing for the crashes.

On "United Nations of Sound," he said, "I was trying to come from a rootsy place. I wanted to be free to experiment with it." In the end, No I.D. proved to be the right partner for the project, though working with him "wasn't a complete bed of roses. It's not good for the nervous system." But the resulting music, he added, has "the real juice, the sauce. Something intangible happened.

"You stand there thinking, 'Wow. No one is going to get it. They're not going to get the trip I've been on—the context, the history, the tradition.' But I knew we were going to be all right. We had some massive tracks." Indeed, "United Nations of Sound" has a bottom-heavy heft that's new to Mr. Ashcroft's work. It's provided not only by No I.D.'s big beats, but also by layers of Steve Wyreman's wavy wah-wah guitars.

Longtime Ashcroft fans know American soul music is a wellspring of his sound. For the album's string arrangements, he recruited Benjamin Wright, who provided a similar service to Mary J. Blige, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, the Temptations and others. Just as Wil Malone's string arrangement gave wings to Mr. Ashcroft's compositions for the Verve, so does Mr. Wright's work for Mr. Ashcroft's new songs. When the singer exhorts listeners to respond to his buoyant messages, Mr. Wright's uplifting strings react first.

"Are You Ready?" and "Born Again," the opening tracks on "United Nations of Sound," find Mr. Ashcroft revisiting a recurring lyrical theme: faith, redemption and Christianity. But, he advised, don't imbue his words with meanings he may not have intended. "Born Again" isn't about religious renewal; it's about the joy he finds in making music his way: "When I feel a melody I get a righteous charge right through me," he sings. "Yeah I'm born again." As for "Are You Ready?" which can currently be heard with the closing credits of the sci-fi film "The Adjustment Bureau," Mr. Ashcroft said the song's narrator is "like a future figurehead. He's sucked up all the end time and conspiracy information."

"There are some moments that are about me," he said. But he described the first-person narrators on other tracks as "supercharacters" and "warriors" trying to find their way.

Mr. Ashcroft reveals his fondness for the past on this disc. He drops the title of a song by the Verve in one tune, quotes Jim Morrison in another, samples John Lee Hooker, the Bee Gees and producer David Axelrod, and builds "Royal Highness" on a riff from Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane." It's one thing to call the album "experimental," as he did during our conversation, but it's another to invite misunderstanding by claiming to be moving forward while looking back. Add in some heavy-handed lines about faith, the gospel—and end the album with the cry "Lord forgive me. Here I come"—and listeners, as well as mean-spirited reviewers, can be pardoned for their misinterpretations.

Mr. Ashcroft said any new music is subject to criticism these days. "Everything's so in a box. The industry isn't doing itself any favors. Stop trying to sell me a copy of a copy, a Xerox of a Xerox. If you can't feel something, forget it."