Of all the strange sights that Live 8 threw us during the summer (Madonna dancing awkwardly with a famine survivor, Snoop Dogg extolling the crowd to eradicate poverty by waving their “motherfuckin’ hands in the air”), one of the strangest was Richard Ashcroft’s guest appearance with Coldplay.
Now Coldplay are a fine group who have written some great songs and don’t deserve half of the critical bile that’s thrown at them. But they’ve never written a song as attention-grabbing as Bitter Sweet Symphony, as moving as The Drugs Don’t Work or as nigh on perfect as History. Richard Ashcroft has – is he really now lining up next to Embrace in the “Chris Martin saved my career” category?
For, lest us forget, Ashcroft was once the coolest man in rock. When Noel Gallagher, a man not known for showering his rivals in praise, called him the best songwriter of his generation, that must mean something. Yet after The Verve split up, it all seemed to go wrong for Ashcroft. Alone With Everybody had some good moments, but his last album, Human Conditions, was bloated, self-important and filled with enough gushing declarations of love to his wife to make even the most romantic of souls a bit nauseous.
The good news is that Keys To The World is Ashcroft’s finest solo album yet. His voice sounds better than ever, and while nothing here recaptures the glory years of The Verve, his songs are more focused than ever before. However, to paraphrase that old footballing clich�, it’s certainly a record of two halves.
Why Not Nothing kicks things off with bursts of brass and a vicious lyric attacking the religious right: “it’s abuse of the cross, let’s gets some God Squad in the dock where they belong”. Ashcroft sounds angry, re-energised and important again – you couldn’t really wish for a better opening track.
Similarly, Music Is Power sounds fresh and almost funky (it’s built around a Curtis Mayfield sample), while the single Break The Night With Colour is one of Ashcroft’s best for years. The lyrics appear to deal with coping with depression (“The world’s so frightening, nothing’s going right today, ‘cos nothing ever does”) and the trademark strings make it one of the most uplifting moments here.
As the album progresses though, you can’t help but notice that Ashcroft seems to be slipping back into the ways that made Human Conditions such a bind to listen to. Lyrics become more cliched-ridden – Why Do Lovers, despite possessing an achingly sweet melody, tells us that “life is tough and love can be hard” while the pedestrian World Keeps Turning has a chorus of “the world keeps turning, everybody’s learning”.
Ashcroft’s preference for epic ballads means that the album’s lack of variety becomes trying – Sweet Brother Malcolm and Cry Till The Morning both plod along drearily, although the second half is rescued somewhat by the stirring pop of Simple Song. It’s a shame as when Ashcroft is on form, such as the beautiful Words Just Get In The Way, he can rival his friend Chris Martin for tear-jerking stadium ballads.
Keys To The World is a frustrating album, in that it contains flashes of what a great songwriter Ashcroft can be, but it more often seems happy to drift along on auto-pilot. It will no doubt be welcomed by the Ashcroft faithful, but there’s going to have to be a bit more variety next time if he’s going to regain that ‘coolest man in rock’ status again.