21 May 2016

Review: Pitchfork weighs in on These People

The former Verve frontman returns after a hiatus with another Richard Ashcroft solo album, with all the ostentatious orchestration, bumper-sticker mantras, and cursory electro-dabbling those entail.

- 5.1

It’s been a busy month for ’90s Brit-rock icons on the comeback trail—Radiohead, Super Furry Animals, and even the Stone Roses have all recently resurfaced after prolonged periods of inactivity. But of them all, Richard Ashcroft arguably has the longest climb back up the mountain, even when you take the Roses’ DOA “All for One” single into account—after soaring to the top of the pops in 1997 with the Verve’s platinum-plated opus Urban Hymns, his stock has tumbled down unceremoniously through a series of increasingly soppy solo albums released over the course of the '00s.

Like many rock ‘n’ rollers saddled with wild-child reputations, Ashcroft has been accused of going soft in his middle age. The truth is, Ashcroft was flashing his sensitive side way back when the Verve was doing pretty acoustic versions of “Make It Till Monday” on the promo circuit for their 1993 debut, A Storm in Heaven. However, his solo work has too often highlighted the big difference tenderness and mush, blowing out the resolution of simplistic songs like someone trying to project an iPhone home movie onto an IMAX screen.

In a way, the appearance of the first Richard Ashcroft album in six years is more unlikely than the Roses’ return after 21. After all, in this current gig economy, it’s expected that our favorite groups will reunite for the plum festival guarantees, no matter how acrimonious the initial split. And, having already played the Verve comeback card in 2008, followed by an aborted attempt at rebranding, it seemed like Mad Richard was content to just carry on as Dad Richard. But if the emergence of These People is something of a surprise, its contents are anything but. (Well, other than the fact it took a preaching populist like Ashcroft this long to title a song “Hold On”). The extended layoff has only further entrenched Richard Ashcroft’s desire to make Richard Ashcroft albums, with all the ostentatious orchestration, resurrection rhetoric, bumper-sticker mantras, clunky metaphors, and cursory electro-dabbling those entail.

In hindsight, the early Verve were essentially the missing link between Spiritualized and Oasis, but with Urban Hymns, they anticipated the post-Britpop soft-rock that Coldplay would use to fill stadiums. And though Ashcroft is loathe to own that legacy, he and Chris Martin ultimately share similar goals—namely, to retrofit classic, Glastonbury-sized balladry to contemporary Top 40 standards, and sell it to the masses with life-affirming, one-size-fits all-lyrics. Ashcroft still possesses one of rock’s great voices, his singular balance of grit and gravitas undisturbed by the passage of time. But unlike Martin, there’s an inherent weariness to Ashcroft’s singing that meshes awkwardly with his forays into upbeat dance-pop.

The most thrilling moments in Ashcroft’s discography have come when it sounds like he’s getting lost inside his own music, with the surging sonics and multi-tracked vocals pushing him toward rapture. But here, he’s merely singing about going “Out of My Body” over pro-forma disco-house presets rather than actually doing it. That fish-out-of-water feeling only amplifies his lazier lyrics, whether he’s dropping musty Watergate metaphors on that track, or deploying tired heroine-as-heroin cliches about a woman who goes “straight for my veins” on the arms-aloft anthem “This Is How It Feels.”

These People supposedly addresses socio-political hot topics like Syria’s refugee crisis and government surveillance, but those inspirations yield precious little insight—as per his solo m.o., Ashcroft transforms real-life tumult into nondescript, placeholder lyrics. And while “Everybody Needs Somebody to Hurt” and “Hold On” respectively recycle the “life’s a !@#$%^&*” sentiments of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” atop neon-flickered electro-pop and sunrise-rave sonics, their pat advice (e.g., “So hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on/You know there ain’t a lot time, but I know that we can make it!”) doesn’t exactly instill you with the !@#$%^&*-it-all swagger that prompts one to plow into grannies on your morning stroll.

Ashcroft always fares best when he sounds like he’s addressing another person in an intimate exchange rather than megaphoning the entire human race, and there are moments on These People where he reconnects with the steely-eyed conviction and restlessness that fueled his best songs. His reunion with the Verve’s go-to string arranger Wil Malone pays immediate dividends on “They Don’t Own Me,” which plays like a sequel to “Lucky Man,” albeit with the sense of fire-wielding wonderment replaced by hardened resilience. Even better is the atmospheric, dead-of-night rumination “Picture of You,” which mines a haunted melancholy that Ashcroft hasn’t really tapped since “Sonnet” and “The Drugs Don’t Work,” while “Black Lines” yields his most rousing performance in ages. Sure, it doesn’t tell you anything we haven’t heard before: “It’s real life/Sometimes it gets so hard.” But more than just remind us once again about the inevitability of debt and death, the song’s ascendant, string-swept chorus shows Ashcroft still has the ability to make us momentarily forget about it.