22 October 2018

Exclusive - Bitter Sweet Twilight

Bitter Sweet Twilight
A Rock Legend Embraces Middle Age
By J. Adams

Twenty years ago, in the hits from The Verve’s Urban Hymns, Richard Ashcroft tapped into a pastoral strain of classic rock that briefly made him a superstar. It was an unlikely triumph that Ashcroft the solo artist has struggled to follow up ever since, attempting universal anthems without one of the last great rock ‘n’ roll bands behind him.

Natural Rebel, Ashcroft’s sixth solo album, takes the classic rock fixation to a new level, channeling his influences more explicitly than ever. If it’s unlikely to change the minds of resentful diehards, it is a strong, mature, and surprisingly adventurous effort from a defining voice of his generation that will reward longtime fans.

The Verve are sorely missed—as always—but with his latest hired hands Ashcroft has assembled something closer to a real band than he’s previously managed. He’s written better songs, but his solo work has rarely benefited from the grit and √©lan of these players as recorded by his producers Jon Kelly and Emre Ramazanoglu.

Album opener “All My Dreams” sets the stage with a soaring ode to Ashcroft’s wife (one of several on the album) that could pass for a more romantic Tom Petty, while lead single “Surprised By The Joy” is a sophisticated gem, a whimsically arranged celebration of escaping modernity into nature. “Man in Motion” is a cosmic road epic that’s equal parts Bruce Springsteen and Gene Clark, one of Ashcroft’s country-rock heroes. And, the ferociously catchy “Money Money” is a gloriously glam raver that could be a hit if alternative rock radio still existed.

Becoming more bruised and craggy with years of experience and smoking, Richard Ashcroft’s voice is one for the ages, and more than makes up for some occasionally spotty songwriting. Little on Natural Rebel will rewrite Ashcroft’s history, or make it to his festival setlists in a year or two, but for fans and perhaps some neophytes on YouTube or Spotify it is an abundantly worthy addition to his deep catalog.

Grade: A-

Track by Track:

All My Dreams – A chiming guitar riff kicks off Natural Rebel with a heartfelt tribute to Mrs. Ashcroft that could be mistaken for a posthumous Tom Petty single. Clearly the man loves his wife, and by the end of this passionate testimonial listeners might, too. A-

Birds Fly – A surprise revival of a beloved demo from the early Urban Hymns sessions, the song on the album that will most divide fans. For some Verve aficionados this country-rock revamp will undoubtedly betray the charm and vulnerability of the unfinished original, but for more open-minded listeners it’s a rootsy gem. A-

Surprised By The Joy – A literate anthem of escaping the madness of modern times for pastoral serenity, evidently inspired by William Wordsworth and/or C.S. Lewis as well as, no doubt, Ashcroft’s own historic estate as a 21st century country gentleman. One of Ashcroft’s stronger solo singles. A

That’s How Strong – An overblown tribute both to Mrs. Ashcroft and Mr. Ashcroft’s cornier influences, a retro devotional that combines Neil Diamond, Vegas-era Elvis and Darkness on the Edge of Town-era Springsteen. A curious guilty pleasure with decidedly selective appeal. C+

Born To Be Strangers – Ashcroft struts with the best of them over an effortless Stonesy groove. The lyrics have little discernible meaning, but it sure goes down smooth. B+

That’s How It Feels – The auteur’s latest attempt at turning out an inspirational anthem along the line of ’90s standard “You Get What You Give,” like the earlier “C’mon People We’re Making It Now” and “Born Again,” the song lacks a certain oomph despite a promising chorus. B

We All Bleed – Over a moody chant closely related to the These People b-side “How The West Was Lost,” Ashcroft evocatively describes a flight to Japan and his purpose in life as a performer. It’s a masterful performance and a song unlike any other in his catalog. Just singing the word “bleed” Ashcroft channels decades of rock ‘n’ roll history. A

Man In Motion – A psychedelic western and better Springsteen song than The Boss has produced in at least 20 years, Ashcroft delivers a country-rock epic of the road. Something of a pastiche but a really solid one. A-

Streets of Amsterdam – An idiosyncratic reminiscence on a past trip to Amsterdam with Mrs. Ashcroft, and the passage of time, with decades of emotion packed into just over five minutes. B+

Money Money – A rock ‘n’ roll barnstormer that concludes the album in timeless style. It’s hard to tell whether the song is a condemnation or celebration of cash, but either way it’s the most convincingly solo Ashcroft has ever rocked out. A-

Rare Vibration – One of two bonus tracks from a promo, a lovely country-rock ramble reflecting on life, love, and loneliness. There’s a loose, almost demo-like quality to it that features Ashcroft at his finest, free-associating with the rich melodicism of the Alone With Everybody b-sides. A-

Guilded Halls – In the other bonus song, chiming 90s guitars introduce country-inflected jangle pop about learning to let go of expectations. Vintage Ashcroft that could have been a b-side at any point in his illustrious career. A-

Hey Columbo – A raw acoustic track recorded in response to the internet assuming something that fell out of his pant leg on live television was a baggie of cocaine, Ashcroft defends himself scathingly with reference to the rumpled Peter Falk character. An interesting curio. B