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REVIEW: Richard Ashcroft – ‘These People’ (Cooking Vinyl)

richard_ashcroft_these_peopleby Ed Biggs

No amount of hypnotherapy will make anyone who heard it forget how poor Richard Ashcroft’s last album United Nations Of Sound was back in 2010. To hear this totemic figure of Britpop, who defined the zeitgeist in 1997 with The Verve’s multi-million selling masterpiece Urban Hymns, stoop to such depths in a flawed attempt to re-brand himself would have been hilarious if Ashcroft hadn’t been responsible for such giddy artistic achievements in the past. Then again, many would argue that it had been coming. His three solo albums – Alone With Everybody (2000), Human Conditions (2003) and Keys To The World (2006) – had hardly set the world alight, and even reuniting The Verve for the sterile Forth in 2008 only slowed the decline.

A six-year retreat from the limelight ensued after that artistic nadir, after which one would have hoped that a serious re-think would have happened, first principles revisited and drawing boards returned to. Sadly, what he’s eventually delivered is essentially as uninspired and middle-of-the-road as virtually everything else he’s come up with since the turn of the millennium, despite a couple of noticeable and jarring attempts to update the sound. It’s not that These People is a bad album – a small handful of genuinely impactful moments of grace serve to make it just about viable – but it will do nothing apart from keep the dwindling faithful from writing him off altogether.

Opening with the truly terrible ‘Out Of My Body’, which uncomfortably welds an acoustic shuffle and orchestral, peaking string flourishes to the most pre-packaged of synth riffs, things start on a cringeworthy note. Ashcroft comes out with a lot of cheap ‘man of the people’ sloganeering with lyrics like “don’t go looking for your Watergate / who employs you baby, they’ll exploit you”, as the track completely lacks nuance or genuine direction. One imagines he’d like to sound like he’s sticking it to the man, but he sounds like your dodgy uncle fronting a pub punk band. Similar profound insights come with ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Hurt’, this time set to something attempting ‘10s electro-indie but coming off as cod-reggae. Recent single ‘Hold On’ offends on the same score, with a bland house-piano riff serving as the bed for more appalling clichés. “Hold on, hold on, hold on / you know there ain’t a lot of time but I know that we can make it” goes the chorus among lyrics about tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons and the truth being on the march again. Sigh.

A lot of the rest of the time, These People is simply stuck in the same trundling, post-Britpop indie rut that he, and a lot of his late ‘90s contemporaries, never got out of. ‘Black Lines’ and lead single ‘This Is How It Feels’ could have come from any of his previous solo releases, giving the lie to the rhetoric. The relentless lack of pace over ten tracks and 51 minutes becomes extremely wearying after a while, and while Ashcroft’s voice is as marvellous as ever, undiminished with the passage of time, it doesn’t really find a suitable accompaniment on an incoherent album unsure of its identity.

In fairness, there are some moments of redemption. ‘They Don’t Own Me’ sees one of Ashcroft’s new ideas finally pay off, an airy, spacious track built on synthetic drumpads that sees him reunite with Wil Malone, who provided the string embellishments for Urban Hymns. Also built in a similarly economical way is the haunting ‘Picture Of You’, which feels like Ashcroft is singing directly to you instead of addressing a crowd. The fact is, when Ashcroft stops trying so hard his natural songwriting chops come out much more naturally.

Ashcroft is the kind of songwriter who has always needed a creative foil, somebody to embed his style and delivery into an appropriate musical context. In The Verve, he could always depend on Nick McCabe, and the alchemical relationship they had produced three glorious records, two of them era-defining. As a solo artist, he’s too often tried to play the preaching populist at the expense of the heartfelt balladeer, which is where his strengths actually lie when he’s operating by himself. These People does not address this problem, and 80% of it is either uninspired or lacking in thought. It’s a shame to see such a charismatic and memorable frontman fall on barren times, and one can only hope he finds a creative partner worthy of his powers. (4/10)

Listen to These People via Spotify here, and tell us what you think below!

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