Whether fronting The Verve or in his solo career, Richard Ashcroft is all about musical majesty. His best songs are sweeping, epic and grand, some would say "grandiose," but he's always aiming for a transcendence from the ordinary to the sublime.
When he succeeds in the effort -- and most folks are going to think "Bittersweet Symphony" here, which is certainly representative, but don't overlook "A Song For The Lovers," "The Drugs Don't Work" and "A New Decade" among others -- the results are truly magnificent.
When he fails, he does so miserably, with songs that are less than mediocre and much less than memorable.
On his new album, Richard Ashcroft & The United Nations of Sound, he does a little of both.
There's a gospel flavor to many of the tracks -- witnessed in titles like "Born Again" and "Let My Soul Rest" -- and Ashcroft often looks, lyrically, to Jesus for redemption while singing like the Soulman Shaman he's long considered himself.
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Musically, there's a mélange of R&B, soul and gospel feels, underpinning Ashcroft's archetypical arena rock, to match the songs' subject matter nicely. It works to great effect on the uplifting lead-off track "Are You Ready?" and the sumptuous and earnest ballad "She Brings Me The Music."
By contrast, Ashcroft falls flat on his face on the grating techno-stomp of "Beatitudes" and the John Lee Hooker-inspired (and co-credited... obviously, he's learned his lesson from the "Bittersweet Symphony" credit and royalties fiasco) "How Deep Is Your Man?" Both are execrable, painful to listen to once, let alone more than that.
There's always been a bit of a pendulum effect at play with artists of Ashcroft's grasping-for-grandeur ilk. The further musicians swing toward success and genuine majesty, the greater their potential to swing a similar distance the other way, towards failure and banality. U2, anyone?
Still, you can't scale dizzy heights -- musical or otherwise -- without stumbling a few times along the way and when following an artist like Ashcroft through his peaks and valleys, the journey can be its own reward.