Richard Ashcroft

Human Conditions (Hut/Virgin)

It's nearly impossible to believe now, but there was a time when the music this man made felt urgent, necessary, even. As front man of British stargazers the Verve, singer and cheekbone-booster Richard Ashcroft piloted the group to musical I-won't-say-riches that made more ephemeral baubles by Blur and Suede seem like accompaniment to expensive nights out at London's Met Bar. The gorgeous singles from Urban Hymns, the band's 1997 swan song – "The Drugs Don't Work," "Lucky Man," the deathless "Bittersweet Symphony" – actually made a case for rock bands doing the gospel thing, searching for redemption through a haze of string charts and electric-guitar filigree.

But on Alone With Everybody, his arrogant 2000 solo debut, Ashcroft zapped his material of that vitality, drowning in rock-poet pretension, lethargic tempos and his own self-aggrandizing moan. You know -- showy ideas, lousy songs? With its plodding follow-up, Human Conditions, Ashcroft slips further down the spiral, stuck in a distended adult-rock moment he can't get out of. "Bright Lights" is a half-digested regurgitation of the Black Crowes' "Jealous Again," with none of that band's shabby joie de vivre. What's worse, an overdubbed bongo drum taps mercilessly throughout the song, so high in the mix it serves as a cheap token of Ashcroft's spirituality. He makes that mistake a lot, assuming that fussy arrangements can stand in for weak songwriting – on the preposterous "Nature Is the Law," Brian Wilson steps in to add a layer of vain, ineffectual "oooh"s to a vain, ineffectual chorus.

Human Conditions isn't entirely without its pleasures. Ashcroft is actually at his best here when he shoots for the bruised AM-radio grandeur of prime Glen Campbell. "Buy It in Bottles," a sad-eyed lament on the topic he's always returning to, earns its wah-wah guitar and harmony vocal line. But the song's just a glint of meaning in a swamp of idle gestures. The drugs, as it turns out, really don't work.

 
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