After six years away, the enigmatic Richard Ashcroft returns to the fray with his fourth solo album, These People. The long break may well be due to the disastrous reception to his last effort, United Nations Of Sound (a solo album in all but name), which came hot on the heels of the fitfully impressive Verve comeback Forth, the band having split yet again due to irreconcilable differences. Ashcroft had had some success with his first three solo albums but none came close to rivalling 1997’s Urban Hymns, when the Verve were riding high on the crest of Britpop with one of the defining works of that decade.
Made with long-time collaborators producer Chris Potter and string arranger Wil Malone, These People certainly sounds good though the quality of the songwriting is uneven. Known for his introspective soul-searching, Ashcroft here has tried to broaden out the subject-matter to reflect political events around the world – such as the war in Syria and the Arab Spring – but mostly he seems to be again dealing with his own personal demons. Even if his skills as a lyricist are limited, his distinctive voice is in great form, resonating with northern soul.
The opener Out Of My Body starts off like a traditional Ashcroft song but develops a dance beat as he sings of being rescued from loneliness: “Out of the darkness/You came down to claim me.” The refrain of lead single This Is How It Feels features a synthesised exhalation (“ah ah ah ah”); the raw regret at having seemingly blown his chance of love. Second single Hold On is about sticking together through tough times of pepper spray and water cannon though the upbeat poppy music doesn’t seem to fit the serious lyrics.
One of the strongest tracks, They Don’t Own Me is a proud declaration of independence, with nice guitar licks and sweeping strings in Verve style. With its subversive title, Everybody Needs Somebody To Hurt makes an off-kilter impact with spaced out guitar work and a syncopated groove. And the stripped-back Picture Of You has a melancholic Drugs Don’t Work vibe, as Ashcroft’s husky, heartfelt vocals recall a memory of an ex-lover: “It makes me smile/it makes me cry.”
But there are too many misfires: the title track is a disappointingly dull mid-tempo number; Black Lines is a drearily sentimental ballad; the piano-led Ain’t The Future So Bright goes nowhere; and closing track Songs Of Experience’s disco chorus fails to convince.
Indie-rock hero to many – and ‘Mad Richard’ to some – Ashcroft has always followed his own maverick agenda, but the kind of offbeat, psychedelic guitar music with which he made his name in the early 90s has of course completely fallen out of favour. These People is a mixture of epic ballads harking back to the sound of the Verve and attempts to move forward with rather half-hearted electronic pop. Despite some beautiful moments, Ashcroft seems to have fallen into the gap between the two.