Richard Ashcroft - Keys to the World
Bill Cummings 12/02/2006
The Verve, contrary to popular misconception, weren't for most of their existence a bunch of string led Middle-of-the-road indie balladeers. Yes their last album- the fine Urban Hymns- contained a few songs that strayed dangerously close to pomp rock, at their best they were a northern psychedelic rock band, who were at their best creating beautiful grooves, inflected with guitarist Nick McCabe's beautiful fret work, slivering above were Mad Richard Ashcroft's delicious wide-eyed vocals. Two albums in particular stand out: “A Storm In Heaven” a shoegazing blast of confusion, philosophy, sex and depression, and “A Northern Soul”, thats troubled inception led the band to create some of their best work. “Life's An Ocean” and “This Is Music” spring to mind.
When the Verve imploded for a second time, Ashcroft was left to go solo, he has since released well received, but really patchy albums 'Alone With Everybody' (2000) and 'Human Conditions' (2002). Only a few of his solo tracks really lived with the majesty of the best of the Verve (“A Song For The Lovers” and “Check The Meaning”) but elsewhere it was a story of failed experimentation and comfortably boring balladry.
So when I heard that The Sun had declared Ashcroft's latest as a “return to form” my heart briefly skipped a beat, but I should have known to believe the words of a publication I have never agreed with. There are highlights: the opener “What Not Nothing?” is a briefly enjoyable Dylanesque rock fuelled spit at George W Bush: “Put the God squad in the dock where they belong.” The title track itself has a neat groove similar to “Life's An Ocean” and a pretty anxious vocal performance, but is it really that much of a departure from 'Mixed Up World' that featured on his first solo album? While the single 'Break the Night with Colour' does have a beautiful vocal performance full of “oohs” and “ahhs” and an ambient chopping guitar and harpsichord beat. It bares a striking and shocking resemblance to one Robbie Williams. While “Simple Song” near the end of the album is a refreshing blast of euphoric horn driven pop that is never replicated elsewhere.
The rest of the album is a series of poor, trite lyrics, backed by M.O.R. pop sounds that continually weigh down the center of this album, no doubt it will satisfy Mondeo Man, but it doesn't make for pleasurable or interesting listening. When Chris Martin introduced Ashcroft “as one of the best voices around” at Live 8, it seems he annointed him with the blandness that pervades some of the new Coldplay album. For instance the poorly-titled, Curtis Mayfield-sampling “Music Is Power” contains several trite lines about songwriting and music, ironic for Ashcroft's failure to connect with me as a listener on this record. (“If the melody is Timeless/It won't let you down/Feel the air moving/Submit to the sound”). The country balladry doesn't stop there, the ironically titled “Words just get in the way” that collapses under the weight of its own orchestral pomposity, while the solemnly strummed ode to lost friends “Dear Brother Malcolm” starts promisingly before going no where. While the country-esque Springsteen-esque closer “World Keeps Turning”: starts well in the verses before falling apart with a cliché-ridden chorus. (“World Keeps Turning/Everyboy's learning/Trying to get ahead in the race”)
“Keys To The World” is for the most part, an album weighed down by trite lyricism, poorly executed chorus' and Ashcroft's almost unnerving Christ-like belief in himself. Somewhere along the line, Ashcroft seems to have draped himself in the misguided notion that he is Dylan, Lennon and Brian Wilson and Ghandi all rolled into one philosophical musical experience. He is sadly mistaken, he has talent (he showed this with the Verve) he has a great voice, and a way with melody, but too often his solo material lets him down, the fleeting glimpses here aren't enough. If you wish to walk with the giants, you must first pay your dues.