Two years after his solo debut, ex-Verve lynchpin Richard Ashcroft returns with Human Conditions, a ten-track album of serious intent that is, first and foremost, an ode to the power of song. And while several tracks here check in around the six-minute mark, this man’s uncompromising style can be forgiven, for his substance is palpable.
Opener Check The Meaning mixes twinned baritone and tenor vocal lines with a sparkling guitar riff and brass parping. Lush orchestration, a Verve trademark, completes an understated anthem. But unchecked lyrical pomposity sometimes threatens to mar his instrumentation. “Can you hear what I’m sayin’ / Got my mind meditatin’ on love,” he drawls, telling us to “check the meaning” repeatedly as if he’s saying something that’s never been said. Eight minutes of this is nothing if not self-indulgent.
Yet he can hardly be criticised for trying to get to grips with Important Things – God, love, the meaning of life, where we’re from and where we’re going to all figure at some point as Human Conditions shambles on in a wash of strings and laid-back beats. Lord I’ve Been Trying – big themes obviously don’t scare him at all – shows that when it comes to melancholia, few do it better. Some lovely lyrics top off a single-worthy melody: “Lord I’ve been trying / Trying to keep myself from crying.” When he was recording this song, he knew he was on to a winner, and it shows.
Elsewhere, Paradise features the ubiquitous strings, layered vocals, brass and bells, and an overwhelming lyrical melancholy remind most of Lucky Man from Urban Hymns. But tracks such as these are somewhat interchangeable and don’t really indicate any progression in Ashcroft’s musical élan, but are nonetheless easy on the ear.
It’s Man On A Mission that might well be the song title that sums up Ashcroft best, and it’s a memorable slice of melodious music with lyrical intent. On this song Ashcroft’s vocals hit perfection. Musically it’s not a million miles away from The Eagles, with a laid-back charm belying its meaty subject matter. It has obvious single potential. “I heard you caught the blues,” he muses – not a surprising outcome for anyone listening to this album.
The most incongruous moment comes with Bright Lights and the appearance of Mercury-winning tabla master Talvin Singh. The tempo is raised, and that comes as a welcome relief, but this song seems distinctly out on a limb within this album.
Its antithesis is the startling effort that is Running Away, a song that recalls Spiritualized‘s finer, chilled moments. Guitars and bass – both played by Ashcroft – underpin eerie tambourine and drum beats which combine to woozy and repetitive effect.
And with Nature Is The Law, a big musical theme tops a record of big lyrical themes. It’s a song which closes the album in a similar style to its opening – namely overblown and self-indulgent, yet easy to listen to for all that.
And when an artist tackles big themes with melodies as sweet as anything you’ll hear all year, it’s possible to forgive a very human condition.