Six years after forming the United Nations of Sound -- a pseudo-group that lasted no more than a single record -- Richard Ashcroft pushes himself back into the spotlight on These People, a 2016 album that finds the former Verve singer reuniting with Wil Malone, an orchestrator who worked on Urban Hymns and Northern Soul. Malone's presence suggests These People may achieve a certain symphonic heft, yet Ashcroft sidesteps the churning psychedelia and progressive majesty of the Verve's prime. In its place, the singer/songwriter taps into a certain insouciant sophistication, favoring insistent arena anthems and finely tailored Eurodisco.
Making an album that strikes chords with pretty much the totality of the British populace means you will be forever be defined according to its terms. But for all the raging against things that Richard Ashcroft does in interviews, that doesn’t seem to be something the ex-Verve man minds much. Certainly, he returns explicitly to the sound of Urban Hymns on his fourth solo album: neat, sad strings, unhurried percussion and his mellifluous foghorn of a voice.
It’s been a busy month for ’90s Brit-rock icons on the comeback trail—Radiohead, Super Furry Animals, and even the Stone Roses have all recently resurfaced after prolonged periods of inactivity. But of them all, Richard Ashcroft arguably has the longest climb back up the mountain, even when you take the Roses’ DOA “All for One” single into account—after soaring to the top of the pops in 1997 with the Verve’s platinum-plated opus Urban Hymns, his stock has tumbled down unceremoniously through a series of increasingly soppy solo albums released over the course of the '00s. Like many rock ‘n’ rollers saddled with wild-child reputations, Ashcroft has been accused of going soft in his middle age.
After six years away, the enigmatic Richard Ashcroft returns to the fray with his fourth solo album, These People. The long break may well be due to the disastrous reception to his last effort, United Nations Of Sound (a solo album in all but name), which came hot on the heels of the fitfully impressive Verve comeback Forth, the band having split yet again due to irreconcilable differences. Ashcroft had had some success with his first three solo albums but none came close to rivalling 1997’s Urban Hymns, when the Verve were riding high on the crest of Britpop with one of the defining works of that decade.
Richard Ashcroft must be delighted that the Stone Roses have set the bar so low for big indie comebacks. His first album in six years finds him trying hard to relocate the Verve’s sense of symphonic grandiosity (to that end he has been reunited with Urban Hymns co-producer Chris Potter and strings arranger Wil Malone), but ultimately falling short. With the exception of the poignant and understated Black Lines, Ashcroft’s material is uninspired, drowned beneath bloated production and hardly enlivened by his customary broadbrush lyrics about standing alone against ill-defined adversaries, with the added bonus of a blizzard of clunking weather metaphors.
Richard Ashcroft dropped off the radar after he finished touring his last solo album, and if you’d put your name to something as horribly ill-advised as United Nations of Sound, you probably would’ve done likewise. That album saw him try to inject something new into the standard template that his previous three solo records had followed, but the inescapable truth about Ashcroft’s own output is that said template is so uncompromisingly rigid that he could probably scream some misanthropic death metal vitriol into the microphone and it’d still come out of the speakers, in that unmistakable Urban Hymns croon, as “hey, hey, everybody, all the people now, come on, yeah”. It’s for precisely that reason that a few cynical eyebrows were raised at the news that, with this comeback LP, Ashcroft had been spurred to emerge from semi-retirement by a burning desire to channel some of his bewilderment and anger at the state of the world we’re living in into a new batch of songs.
Although ‘Ain’t The Future So Bright’ touches on the vocoder rap inflections of 2010’s ‘United Nations Of Sound’, ‘These People’ is the solo record most aligned to Ashcroft’s Verve peak, right down to employing the same string arranger and bunging on one gigantic romance anthem, ‘This is How It Feels’. It’s both a grandmaster lesson and an antidote to the current crop of insipid singer-songwriter mulch, the sound of Ashcroft charging into the acoustic rock youth centre and showing them how it’s done. “I’m feeling like a number one again”, he sings; it’s a better bet than Leicester winning the league.
Hailed as Britpop’s brightest voice around the release of Urban Hymns in 1997, Richard Ashcroft’s solo career has enjoyed moderate health without ever really exciting. It’s been ten years since The Verve’s frontman enjoyed any real commercial or critical success, with his solo output failing to shake its unfortunate association with Noughties dad rock. He returns with an album lacking any real sense of focus, and while there are certainly a number of new ideas on These People, none of them feel properly fleshed out or fully realised.
The Upshot: Put on the gas mask, world! He probably won’t be counting much in the royalties from record sales of this stinker. And he can’t even make a bank deposit from The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” either. Several years ago when Chris Cornell released his Timabland “produced” album Scream, the rock world was in a tizzy. It seemed for all intents and purposes that one of rock’s great vocalists was now staking out the turf held by Madonna and the likes of Linkin Park.