The music of Richard Ashcroft is not as popular as it once was. There’s no shame in that: The Verve‘s Urban Hymns was such a colossal success that he’d always struggle to match it; even The Verve themselves failed to come anywhere near that album’s commercial success when they reunited for 2008’s comeback album Forth.
Ashcroft himself acknowledged this decline in popularity in a recent interview: “If I am on the outside of the mainstream again, then fantastic”, he said. “But… I’m not on the outside to the painters, to the delivery guys, the shop assistants. I’m not on the outside to the people of England.” It’s a terrifically complacent statement, implying – wrongly – that the working classes of England (not Britain, oddly) will accept any old shit when it comes to music.
That complacency is writ large across the eponymous debut by RPA & The United Nations Of Sound, Ashcroft’s latest and, it has to be said, truly wretched trading name. Yet the personnel deployed on the record suggests he’s aware of the need to shake things up. It boasts an illustrious roll call of American hip-hop and R&B talent: it’s produced by Chicago hip-hop knob-twiddler No ID (who’s worked with, among others, Common and Jay-Z); the string arrangements are by Benjamin Wright, who was responsible for the orchestration on Michael Jackson‘s Off The Wall, and it’s engineered by Motown legend Reggie Dozier.
But you might as well add Skinny Puppy, Kid Creole and The Wurzels to that list of contributors, for all the palpable influence that No ID, Wright and Dozier exert over this album. This is hugely conservative, risk-averse music. The melodies are plodding and unexciting. The lyrics are unimaginative. And it is so, so dull. Just like a regular Richard Ashcroft solo album, then.
First track Are You Ready typifies the album’s half-hearted approach to experimentalism. The opening orchestral flurry elicits some short-lived excitement before the strings quickly slink to the background, merely serving as a supine backing track for a typically plodding Ashcroft melody.
That said, it’s perhaps for the best that any genuine experimentation is kept to a minimum, for the most experimental thing here is also the worst: America, an unholy m�lange of thudding hip-hop beats, falsetto babbling and stadium rock guitar noodling. Compared to that, the vanilla ballads Glory and She Brings Me The Music (the latter sounding utterly desperate to break into No Woman No Cry throughout) come as a blessed relief.
The lyrics are Ashcroft’s uniquely lazy blend of pseudo-pugilism (“I got the crown and I’m never gonna pass it on or lay it down / You gotta fight me”), sentimentality (“let’s do this thing called life”), religious imagery (“I’m out here in Babylon, come on out with me”) and bumper-sticker counter-culturalism (“I got the real style / Steve McQueen vibe / I drive for miles”).
The album’s best track is Life Can Be So Beautiful, a soul track sung in falsetto by Ashcroft. It’s not very good – there’s no tune and the lyrics are bobbins – but at least it’s untouched by the overwhelming machismo that infects the rest of the album. It could have been used as a template for a much more interesting record.
Richard Ashcroft indulging his interest in black American music isn’t a bad idea on paper. Verve tracks such as Northern Soul and This Time were surprisingly successful attempts at funk. But the similar fusions attempted on United Nations Of Sound are so poorly executed that the album has to go down as a pompous, self-indulgent rock folly. Not good. Not good at all.