It may not feel like it, but Ian Brown has been away from the album format for some time. If you remove the Stone Roses revival from the calendar, and those two tracks that promised more new material but petered out, Ripples is his first new work for nearly 10 years.
That’s a long time even for an artist like Ian Brown, and looking at his last statement My Way, his sixth album as a solo artist, it is not too much to expect comparable emotional depth and creative edge this time around. So what has time spent with his first musical love done for his work as a solo artist?
Unfortunately the initial reactions are a bit ‘meh’. Brown does plenty of good things on Ripples, but for an artist known and loved as being a bit unpredictable, a bit edgy, Ripples finds a surprisingly safe middle ground. This happens in spite of Brown playing most of the instruments, writing the majority of the songs and producing the record himself – with a little help from his sons.
There lies the possible problem. As a producer, you can’t help but wonder if Brown has tidied up the sounds too much. The appealing aspects of his voice have always been the edgy tone, the accent-heavy feelings – and unlike most singers he has not always had to rely on singing in tune to make the strongest possible impact. Here the voice is too processed, aligning with the music a polished finish that feels too bright and removes any of the rough.
Comeback single First World Problems is an ideal illustration. It makes an attractive sound, the loping beat containing a nice dollop of funk – but even after several listens it is not too easy to recall, and Brown’s observations about leaving the daily grind behind are difficult to relate to. The title track is better, strutting its stuff purposefully to a more urgent vocal and a fine bass line.
Breathe And Breathe Easy (The Everness Of Now) is the obvious exception to the polish. Like a one-man band, Brown sings a street corner song with just a single guitar chord and bass drum, stripped bare and suiting it, the voice allowed to run free in the lower to middle range.
He continues in upbeat mood. “I’m on a coral sand beach where pelicans fly”, he sings on It’s Raining Diamonds. “I’m layin’ in the cool breeze doing what I please”, before the music rather stutters to a halt. Blue Sky Day takes a more meaningful stance, laying out a cool track with harmonica and bluesy keyboard.
The two covers here fare relatively well. Black Roses, with an obvious reference to the former day job, turns Barrington Levy’s song into one of the more urgent grooves on the album. Mikey Dread’s Break Down The Walls (Warm Up Jam) offers a wholly positive outlook, closing the album with the most upward looking vocals you could hope for.
And yet, despite the mini-successes, nothing really jumps out, and Ian Brown’s seventh album still feels weirdly unrewarding, the artist playing a contented father rather than raging at the current state of the world. That is fair enough of course, but for an artist as established and inspirational as Ian Brown has been over the decades, we surely deserve waves rather than ripples.