Release Date: 02.25.03
Record label: Virgin Records
Genre(s): Movies, Film Scores, Musicals, Etc.
by: terry sawyer
Richard Ashcroft was my first encounter with a bona fide rock God. Back in the ever receding high school years, my devoted clot of friends and I saved up all our money and drove to Detroit from our small rural cesshole to catch shows and buy records from bands like The Verve (Richard Ashcroft's former band), Ride, and Spiritualized. The remaining funds were invested in short-term, high-yield drug use. At one Verve show I remember Richard Ashcroft saying something about being slightly sick. The band proceeded to belt out a blistering set of their lotus-eating interstellar rock and roll and Richard Ashcroft sang with dangerous soulfulness, when he wasn't dry heaving on the stage.
I have followed his post-Verve outings with much interest, even if my response has been fairly lackadaisical. Human Conditions, his second full length, takes a risky stab at orchestral existentialism and world-weary epic pop balladry. Ashcroft has a sniper's skill for hitting melody. Both "Buy It In Bottles" and "Science of Silence" have moments where his voice climbs and falls in way that almost sounds like rainy day London Motown. The bruisy beauty of his voice carries many of the tracks, effortlessly cutting through the flood of strings. But vocal chops alone never carry a record (see heinous releases by Mariah Carey, Celene Dion, et al.) and the weaker moments on this album come from well-intentioned overabundance.
Much about the production of this record could have benefited from a bit of restraint. Remember those pictures from grade school of cumulonimbus clouds, the ones with the scary thunderheads that looked like precariously piled shaving cream? Well, Human Condition suffers under an ambitious layering of sounds that many times collapse under their own weight. "Check the Meaning" with its faux-improvisational lyrics (lots of yeahs) and its wholly unnecessary length (eight minutes) comes across as a song constantly outpacing its abilities. "Lord I've Been Trying" makes the same mistake during the chorus by heaping strings and guitars on one another so heavily that the final product is abusively nondescript and a bad frame for the bluesy pierce of his voice. Many of the songs start with start with a scope and vision that enthralls only to reel you off into that drifting zone where you've forgot that your stereo is on. There's the hook, but not a lot to keep you sticking around.
Lyrically, it's hard not to wince over the course of Human Conditions with grating lines like: "I'm agnostic getting God, but man/She takes a female form". Right, God is that fine pussy in my bed. If it didn't sound like it was supposed to profound, it might be charming in that the world according to Ol' Dirty Bastard kind of way. To be generous, some of life's simplest, boldest and most meaningful truths are things said a thousand times and rarely practiced. What is Proverbs after all, but ancient Jew clichés? Then there's "Nature is the Law", a chorus without a song, where Ashcroft repeats the mantra "Nature is the Law" until its sandblasted into your mind. Does he mean that his girlfriend should decapitate him after sex and devour his skull? Is he saying "Baby I can't help myself with all these ho's"? Its relentless repetition never makes its deeply hidden wisdom any clearer to me. Bitchiness aside, it's much easier to forgive the limping lyrics when one considers the fact that Ashcroft is trying to talk about the sheer hugeness of life, his doubts, his confusion about God, and his search for a regular's bloke's hope. I can't fault the effort even if the form sometimes stubs my snotty sensibilities.
I have no doubts at all that Richard Ashcroft is capable of making a swooning record of pop gold. In fact, "The Miracle", the records final track goes a long way toward getting there. Replete with the sound of the bionic man jumping, it sounds like Ashcroft's swaggering rewrite of the Box Top's "The Letter". "Buy It In Bottles" also masters the plaintive, kicking around the world vibe with a wistful chorus that has a heartbreaking sway. Human Conditions is riddled with these moments of overwhelming almost gospel-like soars that make it impossible not to pull some joy out from underneath his overreach.
For die-hard fans, Human Conditions contains all the requisite ache and quake one expect from Ashcroft, wrapped in Phil Spector-inspired walls of tinny beauty. For everyone else, this album is bound to leave you enrapt and shrugging, on the verge of being awed, but ultimately unsatisfied. 16-Apr-2003 7:408 AM