Ashcroft hums an ‘urban’ tune

Brendan McCarthy

“Say what you want, I’m a man on a mission.” This line, from a song on Richard Ashcroft’s recently released “Human Conditions,” epitomizes the album and Ashcroft’s career over the last four years. Former frontman to Britpop pioneers The Verve, Ashcroft was at one time compared to Mick Jagger. The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” which samples a Rolling Stones song, helped solidify this characterization as well as propel the British band’s breakthrough in the U.S. The album “Urban Hymns” was wildly successful in England and enjoyed moderate success on this side of the pond, but after the band’s breakup in 1999, things haven’t been the same for Ashcroft.

His debut solo album, “Alone with Everybody,” (2000) was met with mixed reviews, mainly because of Ashcroft’s departure from the signature sound of his former band. The album was devoid of much of The Verve’s edgy guitar and pessimistic lyrics.

“Human Conditions,” released on Feb. 25, is another step in Ashcroft’s journey since leaving The Verve. While it does generally continue the softer sounds of “Alone With Everybody,” this album makes a slight return to the lyrics and sound of The Verve. Overall, the album is very easy to listen to. Ashcroft combines his own guitars and bass with an extensive string section. He even borrows the voice of Brian Wilson for background vocals on “Nature is the Law.” The result is a well-crafted album structured around rich sounds and soaring melodies.

The album begins with a Verve-esque anthem, “Check the Meaning.” The disorder of Ashcroft’s offbeat lead guitar riff coupled with orderly background strings illustrates the tormented mind of a man struggling with what to believe. On one hand Ashcroft knows “there’s got to be something more,” but later sings, “I’m agnostic in religion” leading to the conclusion that “we’re out here on our own.”

Perhaps the best song on the album is, “Buy it in Bottles.” This song most resembles The Verve’s sound. With a similar message to “The Drugs Don’t Work,” Ashcroft writes a song suggesting that happiness doesn’t come from bottles, prayer or pills. Ashcroft is still searching for some kind of meaning; he tells the listener “until I get there then, I’ll be looking for the sense.”

This emptiness is a common theme in the album, expressed bluntly in “Science of Silence,” in which Ashcroft sings, “we are on a rock spinning silently.” With a catchy beat and great words, “Science of Silence” is certainly a highpoint of the album.

“Man on a Mission” is also a standout track. The song builds on a base of background vocals that culminates in Ashcroft reminding us over and over again that there’s no time to waste in life.

This record is a mission accomplished for Richard Ashcroft. He has created an intelligent album that is a pleasure to listen to. It is a significant improvement on “Alone With Everybody.”

While the album is not a return to Ashcroft’s glory days with The Verve, it is a step in the right direction. But, if you are looking for something to add a little variety to your CD collection, “Human Conditions” is a sure bet.