12 November 2021

Exclusive - Acoustic Hymns, Vol. 1 review

Lacking Verve
Richard Ashcroft’s acoustic hits underwhelm
By J. Adams

Ever since The Verve’s breakup after the multiplatinum Urban Hymns in the late ’90s, frontman Richard Ashcroft’s career has been strewn with puzzling decisions. Even as one of the finest singer-songwriters of his generation, without the band he’s struggled with production and arrangement, squandering many potentially great songs.

The area where Ashcroft has most consistently excelled is live solo acoustic performance, eschewing hired hands to highlight his craft in purest form. So the announcement of an acoustic collection promised a major addition to his catalog—revisiting tracks that hadn’t been fully realized while revitalizing familiar classics.

Instead, the new Acoustic Hymns, Vol. 1 is a strangely extraneous rehash of mostly Urban Hymns-era material closely approximating the originals. It isn’t bad—lavishly produced with Ashcroft singing at his usual high standard—so much as a redundant missed opportunity.

Plenty of artists have revisited their hits for artistic or contractual reasons, uncovering new shadings or taking the songs in different directions, but with few exceptions this set faithfully imitates the originals to lesser effect. And while these recordings may utilize acoustic instruments, the production is as mannered, overdubbed and string-laden as on any of Ashcroft’s previous albums.

Take “Sonnet” and “Lucky Man,” for instance, singles from Urban Hymns. They’re beautiful songs, and Ashcroft sings these new versions beautifully. But they’re so close to the originals that they emphasize the absence of The Verve without developing their own groove. In live solo performance they can take on a shamanic quality at least as compelling as on the iconic recordings, but little of that comes through here. If playing in the background, few would notice that these are even different versions, if less viscerally satisfying.

Some of the tracks are more obviously different, and not for the better. “Bitter Sweet Symphony” abandons the big drums and infamous sample, losing much of its momentum. “A Song for the Lovers” adds a somewhat intriguing 30 seconds of romantic atmosphere before settling into a less captivating recreation of the original, while “Break The Night With Colour” lurches to a noisy conclusion.

On a few songs it works: “Weeping Willow” is successfully recontextualized among Ashcroft’s array of late-night confessionals, and “One Day” unassumingly comes from an older and wiser perspective. “Velvet Morning” gains a striking new outro. But almost everyone will still prefer the originals.

What’s frustrating is that Ashcroft is often at his best performing acoustic, dating back to early Verve radio sessions, routinely putting his studio recordings to shame. Simply turning on a microphone would have yielded far better results, but we’re left with a decent enough pseudo-greatest hits missing several key songs, even as his neglected back catalog deserves much more attention.

If there is to be a Vol. 2, it deserves a more adventuresome approach, with deeper cuts more thoroughly reimagined. How ironic that an album of so many of Ashcroft’s greatest songs could turn out easily the weakest of his career.

Grade: C

Track by Track:

Bitter Sweet Symphony – A solid retread of Ashcroft’s biggest hit, but just a touch too slow. There’s some nice vocal multitracking and percussion throughout.

A Song For The Lovers – Slightly too on-the-nose Mediterranean intrigue introduces a performance exceedingly close to the original, but a little less lush.

Sonnet – A good performance of an Urban Hymns-era classic too close to the original to benefit from the comparison. Ashcroft sounds great, even better than in 1997, but the song doesn’t quite soar without The Verve’s contributions.

C’mon People (We’re Making It Now) – A major missed opportunity given how much better solo performances have been compared to the middling single, as this new take sticks closely with the old arrangement. Having Liam Gallagher guest star is an interesting novelty, but he and Ashcroft lack much in the way of chemistry or interplay.

Weeping Willow – One of the few tracks on the record distinctly different from the original, replacing Nick McCabe’s churning guitars with moody strings. A definite highlight, and a damn shame more of the album didn’t take this approach.

Lucky Man – Another solid performance so similar to the original so as to magnify the missing Verve magic. Richard Ashcroft can make stadiums of grown men cry by playing this alone on an acoustic, and yet opted for a lesser soundalike.

This Thing Called Life – The most surprising inclusion, an obscure entry off the United Nations of Sound LP from years after anything else on the collection. It’s a strange selection, a dynamite chorus stapled to somewhat awkward verses and overly similar to the original, but the album’s one reboot that betters its predecessor.

Space & Time – Another missed opportunity that too closely approximates the original, except for some oddly out of place horns. The song builds to a slightly country-flavored new outro that would make more sense live than in the studio.

Velvet Morning – To its credit, one of the few songs much different than twenty-some years ago, building to a lovely new outro. The band does a good job conjuring a countryish atmosphere and Ashcroft delivers a tremendous vocal performance not through a megaphone as in the original. The problem is that the megaphone distortion and Verve guitars were key to the song’s defining wooziness. Still, easily an album highlight.

Break The Night With Colour – Another somewhat surprising inclusion, one of only two songs on the album not dating from the Urban Hymns era, and also way too similar to the original—at least until it shifts to the noisy outro that Ashcroft typically performs in concert, far less elegant than the original fade-out.

One Day – Now this is more like it! Genuinely stripped down, distinctly different from the original, and sung with the wisdom of years. The entire album should have been along these lines.

The Drugs Don’t Work – Not an improvement on the original but a rawer take perhaps more attuned to 21st century sensibilities (and media placements). More interesting than most of the record and a decent conclusion to a disappointing LP.

Regarding a Vol. 2

Amid promotion Ashcroft mentioned maybe releasing further acoustic volumes, but over the years has teased other projects—most notably a b-sides compilation—that never came to fruition. Hopefully he will record another, to do greater justice to his remarkable catalog.

Frankly, the impetus for Vol. 1 was likely more economic than artistic: streaming royalties. The bulk of Ashcroft’s come from four singles on Urban Hymns that he largely wrote but must share with estranged bandmates, plus the Stones until recently, and then to a lesser extent other Verve-performed tracks. To the extent that digital and physical sales still matter, the only package previously offering his biggest songs (besides Urban Hymns itself) was The Verve’s This Is Music singles compilation, which emphasizes Ashcroft but lacks any solo material.

So glossy studio versions of his big tracks with The Verve, but now officially by Richard Ashcroft, are presumably a lucrative prospect, and probably explain the strange soundalike redundancy of many of the rerecorded songs from Urban Hymns. Perhaps they will become the standards offered by algorithms, even if less compelling than the originals. If Ashcroft does record another acoustic collection, it will be more for pride than revenue.

Here are 22 songs for a prospective Vol. 2, several of which really should have made Vol. 1, that could readily make up a new classic:

See You In The Next One (Have A Good Time) – The composition that more or less marked Ashcroft’s initial emergence as a singer-songwriter back in 1993, it received a number of solid solo acoustic performances during the ’98 tour.

On Your Own – Anticipating Urban Hymns, but with more angst, the A Northern Soul single that heralded Ashcroft the troubadour replacing Mad Richard the psychedelic frontman. A piano-driven acoustic version was released by The Verve as a b-side.

History – The Verve’s final single and biggest hit at the time of their first breakup, a searing lament Ashcroft has routinely nailed over the years.

Misty Morning June – A lovely unreleased gem from the early Urban Hymns sessions, would fit perfectly with Ashcroft’s more pastoral solo material.

Never Wanna See You Cry – A promising but underrealized Urban Hymns b-side that could benefit from Ashcroft’s deeper, craggier vocals a quarter-century later.

You On My Mind In My Sleep – One of the highlights from Ashcroft’s solo debut, but at least as overproduced as the rest of the album. An acoustic radio version released on a promo points the way to a new arrangement combining the best of both.

Money To Burn – A fun Vegas-era Elvis pastiche that got inflated into a dubious imitation of Spiritualized, resulting in a mediocre single, but ripe for rawer reinterpretation.

Check The Meaning – One of Ashcroft’s all-time greats, but a poor choice for his solo magnum opus Human Conditions’ lead single. Always a highlight of his acoustic sets and a song that deserves more recognition.

Buy It in Bottles – An almost-great single from the underrated Human Conditions that would be child’s play to upgrade, one of Ashcroft’s near-classics that most demands revision.

Science of Silence – Arguably Ashcroft’s greatest solo composition, another almost-classic single suffering from bloodless production. It should have been a massive hit, regardless, and warrants more exposure.

Nature Is The Law – A profound spiritual meditation that concluded Ashcroft’s second—and best—solo album, but that suffered from cloying overdubs courtesy of Brian Wilson. An ideal choice to revive.

Music Is Power – One of Ashcroft’s better-known anthems, originally built off a Curtis Mayfield sample, and consistently a highlight of his acoustic sets.

Words Just Get In The Way – An underrated single from Ashcroft’s third solo album, Keys To The World, that would benefit from grittier, more countrified production.

Keys To The World – The title track of Ashcroft’s third solo LP suffered from an instantly-dated electronica arrangement that ruined an otherwise excellent song. Rare acoustic performances were almost shockingly better.

Rather Be – Perhaps the best of the Ashcroft-centric songs on The Verve’s reunion album Forth, and its second single. One of Ashcroft’s stronger compositions, but one he’s never performed solo.

Mona Lisa – At one point a contender for Forth, the band just couldn’t quite make it work, at least on the bootleg recording in circulation. But the bones of a better song are there.

Are You Ready? – The lead single from the United Nations of Sound project, the original was a somewhat generic Britpop jock jam, but occasional acoustic performances revealed a more compelling composition.

She Brings Me The Music – A promising but seemingly unfinished devotional from the frustrating United Nations of Sound album that was undermined by an incongruous outro and Ashcroft’s pneumonia during recording.

Glory – An underrated tune from United Nations of Sound that suffered severely from inexplicable overdubs, and wouldn’t take much to vastly improve.

They Don’t Own Me – One of the highlights of Ashcroft’s excellent comeback album These People that’s become more and more relevant in ensuing years. The song is too subtle to work in live performance, but ideal to revisit in a studio setting.

Hold On – The electronic arrangement of These People’s second single arguably overshadowed one of the best anthems Ashcroft had written in years, which could easily fit other sonic contexts.

Surprised By The Joy – One of Ashcroft’s finest singles, and the highlight of his last album Natural Rebel, that held up well in acoustic performance.