There’s genuinely a lot to admire about Richard Ashcroft. The glory days of The Verve. His confrontational approach to marketing. The Twitter meltdowns. Arms wrapped in snakes. Real snakes. Maybe this is the Natural Rebel he wants to tell us about. Like a bloke in an Adidas tracksuit challenging you to a square go from his front garden, you can’t help but admire the effort in his relentless battle to stay relevant.
So, here we are. His first solo effort since 2016’s These People has been backed by some high profile PR, support slots with The Rolling Stones as well as the aforementioned social media incidents. The album cover shows Ashcroft, resplendent in a white suit, with his acoustic guitar held aloft in an obvious show of defiance. That’s some hefty imagery right there. The goods would certainly need to be delivered after all that. Well, that’s what you’d think.
It starts out quite well. All My Dreams is a jaunty love letter that explores Ashcroft’s well worn themes – spirituality, life, love, dreams and childhood. Birds Fly is a sweet, string-drenched country confection that evokes early solo George Harrison and Surprised By The Joy sounds like The Style Council at their most upbeat. I’m thinking – this is fine. The toe’s tapping. What’s all the fuss about? But, like the overtly pious Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man, hollering the word of God as the flames rise, so the creeping dread of ennui gradually envelops everything. This time, it’s not the slowly immolated geese that are loudly honking. It’s the lyrical content.
Ashcroft completely offers himself up, it’s almost sacrificial. The vein-bulging passion is poured out into an almost bottomless pit of cringe-inducing lyrics which seem to have been cultivated from the cutting room floor at Hallmark cards. The sheer glibness of it is staggering. Yet, the words are presented as sage, life affirming nuggets of fatherly wisdom.
We All Bleed throws up the first of many jaw dropping couplets, “Walking when it’s airy / Saw the tombs, the cemetery” that’s dug around a cloying, orchestral backdrop and That’s When I Feel It has him channelling The Waterboys: feeling it, checking it; the spirit, the emotion – it’s like a job spec for a Pilates teacher.
Patience is worn to the nub by the time A Man In Motion revs onto the horizon. “I’m like yeah! Mmm! Aaaaww! Keep on driving!” There must’ve been a banana in the tailpipe as it’s plodding acoustic strum chugs towards the fade out before finally running out of gas. Ashcroft sings “I’m a man in motion / All I need is speed”. You’d need to be on crack to take any pleasure from this stuff.
By the time we roll into Streets of Amsterdam, the wheels are completely off. A shuffling piano ballad recounting the horrors of a European city break, it features a clanger of a chorus line – “Stopped for a coffee / it was stone cold”. It reads like the words of a disgruntled punter on Trip Advisor. Let’s just pray the city’s tourist board never get hold of a copy. Things get even weirder when he’s “dodging bikes and trams / I wanna see you in a neon glass”. It’s wrong. It’s creepy.
Final track Money Money represents the only change up in terms of style on the entire album. Probably meant as a way to underline his “rawk” credentials, it plays out as a hackneyed attempt at a Rolling Stones stomper, lazily repeating the song title over and over until the end, achieving the square root of nothing. It’s totally unconvincing.
With this record, Richard Ashcroft may have well slipped into self parody. You could argue that he has earned the right to do what he wants. However, if he does want to stay relevant he needs to open his ears to anything that isn’t circa 1994. There is so much music out there. Immediate, creatively rich music, that has proper emotional content and explores real themes.
Natural Rebel must be sacrificed so that the green shoots of new, inspiring, diverse and challenging music can grow strong and be harvested in the ears of a willing public. And so it is written. Amen.