03 June 2016

Exclusive - These People review

The Captain Returns
Richard Ashcroft’s These People In Review
By J. Adams

Few rock ’n’ roll icons are so resented by so many of their longtime fans as Richard Ashcroft, former frontman of space rock legends The Verve. Having thrice broken up the band for a mostly underwhelming solo career, and released four flawed albums that amount to promising demos for potentially brilliant Verve songs, Ashcroft has long since exhausted the patience of many who miss the shamanic intensity of old, back when he would still work with artists as gifted as his former bandmates.

Ashcroft’s fifth solo LP, These People, just released after a six-year hiatus, may not change the haters’ minds: it’s inconsistent as per usual, and no doubt would have been better with input from Nick McCabe, Simon Jones, and Pete Salisbury. But taken on its own terms, it’s a rich and rewarding record that demonstrates why Ashcroft is still grabbing headlines and selling out gigs nearly 20 years after “Bitter Sweet Symphony” and Urban Hymns ushered in his brief heyday.

He sounds fantastic, for one thing—Ashcroft’s voice and articulation have become more bruised and nuanced over the years, deepening a magnificently emotive instrument that gives gravity to his wide-screen philosophizing and mostly outshines occasional lapses in songwriting and production. Unlike the bloodless arrangements of previous solo albums, or the blunt overcompensation of 2010’s failed R&B crossover United Nations of Sound, the collection strikes a generally tasteful balance between Ashcroft’s usual acoustic singer-songwriterisms and comfortable retro-electronica with French producer Mirwais, who has worked with Madonna and Fischerspooner, framed with longtime collaborator Wil Malone’s elegant string arrangements. And much of the album was recorded in Ashcroft’s basement, lending the songs a warmth and intimacy beyond most of his prior work.

Highlights include lead singles “This Is How It Feels,” a slow burn that builds to one of Ashcroft’s grandest-ever outros, and “Hold On,” an exhilarating synth anthem of rebellion and resilience reportedly inspired by the Arab Spring. “They Don’t Own Me” is a hypnotic manifesto both socio-political and spiritual, while “Everybody Needs Someone to Hurt” is a cinematic, atmospheric journey evoking an unusually insightful bad trip. The stark “Pictures of You” is Ashcroft’s rawest late-night confessional since the A Northern Soul sessions, and “Ain’t The Future So Bright” is a striking meditation on making it through the depressive episodes he’s periodically mentioned in interviews.

Not all of the material is as successful. Opener “Out of My Body” is an audacious and uber-catchy juxtaposition of Lee Hazlewood-esque western balladry with dance-y alt-pop, and builds to an epic crescendo, but comes off sillier than its earnest lyric. The title track features some dodgy writing, and what’s clearly intended as a soaring chorus is weighed down by excessive multi-tracking, keeping the song from quite taking off. Closer “Songs of Experience” is paint-by-numbers Ashcroft, a decent tribute to poet William Blake (previously quoted in “History” and “Love Is Noise”) and cult producer David Axelrod (previously sampled in “Life Can Be So Beautiful” and source of “Holy Are You,” The Verve’s longtime stage intro) that is a little slight for all of its pomp and circumstance.

Overall, despite The Verve’s long shadow, These People marks a strong return from one of British rock’s most indelible voices. If Ashcroft has written better songs and ventured further from his comfort zone, he’s never sung better, and most who loved Urban Hymns or liked his earlier solo records will find much to appreciate while still hoping for another Verve album next time.

Grade: A-

Track by Track:

Out of My Body – A siren effect announces a (slightly) more political Ashcroft, with insistent country-folk breaking into bouncy dance pop about defying authorities of all kinds. It’s a bold start to the album, extremely catchy, and weirder than anything he’s done before, but doesn’t entirely hang together. B+

This Is How It Feels – The first single kicks off with a spacey refrain and gradually comes together layer by layer ala Spiritualized, with Ashcroft crooning over a triumphant array of strings and his own spiritual chanting, reminiscent of Brian Wilson’s contributions to “Nature is the Law.” A

They Don’t Own Me – Vintage Ashcroft along the lines of “Lucky Man” and “Rather Be,” this could fit seamlessly on anything he’s released since 1997. He sings the hell out of the verses and the Lennonesque chorus is inspiring, but it’s hard not to wonder what triumphant colors McCabe and Jones might have added. A

Hold On – Controversial among fans, the second single is the danciest track Ashcroft has released since “C’mon People (We’re Making It Now),” and much better realized. Universalizing street protest as a metaphor for broader human struggles, the song builds to a fervent conclusion with Ashcroft preaching his gospel over urgent strings. A

These People – Sort of this album’s “Valium Skies,” without The Verve to salvage the promising building blocks. After an intriguingly 80s guitar intro, excessive strings and vocal multi-tracking weigh down a song that would have been better served stripped down. There are some dubious lyrics and the classic rock solo seems to belong in a track more genuinely lighter-waving. B-

Everybody Needs Someone to Hurt – A funky psychedelic expedition into alienation and man’s inhumanity to man. Ashcroft rides the groove with insight, aplomb, and some of the best production of his solo career. A-

Pictures of You – A raw late-night confessional that could be mistaken for an outtake from the A Northern Soul sessions, but for Ashcroft’s craggier vocals. He sounds pretty “cut up,” as he sings, and subtle flourishes enhance the atmosphere. B+

Black Lines – Reportedly inspired by the death of a friend, the song moves from abject sorrow to avowed determination to carry on with life, sounding quite like the second side of Keys to the World. It all works, but for an awkward transition between the pastoral stateliness of most of the track and the sudden up-tempo exuberance of the outro, reminiscent of “She Brings Me The Music.” B+

Ain’t The Future So Bright – The sleeper gem of the album, with mellow piano and synths underlying Ashcroft’s compelling testimony of hanging on through a deep depression. A-

Songs of Experience – Another that would have fit on Keys to the World, it’s a solid if not especially memorable Ashcroft album track with a slightly clunky chorus, partly redeemed by the bracing rock ‘n’ roll outro that concludes the album in typically grandiose fashion. B

How The West Was Lost – From the Japanese edition, perhaps the only b-side that will emerge from the sessions. Less of a song than a mystic western soundscape splitting the difference between Ashcroft heroes David Axelrod and Ennio Morricone, with a few cryptic overdubs for druggy effect. Pretty cool. B for what it is

Hold On EP [Mirwais Remix, Brixton Angels Remix, Brixton Angels Dub] – These dancier remixes take the song’s electronica elements to their toe-tapping logical conclusion. Not what most Verve fans want to hear, and unlikely to get much play even in Wigan clubs, but some of the better Ashcroft remixes. B- for what they are

J. Adams is a New York-based writer and critic. His previous reviews include: Selections from the Java Heat Soundtrack (2013) and A Critique of RPA & The United Nations of Sound (2010).