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Published on December 20th, 2018 | by voxx

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Richard Ashcroft – Natural Rebel

Soft rock with restraint: the ex-Verve man delivers his best LP in years…

Speaking to Q Magazine in 2016, Richard Ashcroft laid down a challenge to contemporary songwriters. “Anyone in the world who writes their own songs, in the last 10 to 15 years, let’s play one song after each other – you do yours, I’ll do mine, like a Top Trumps of songwriting. I’ve got Dracula, I’ve got Chewbacca. King Kong is ‘Bitter Sweet’. Fu Manchu – he’s ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’.”

It was a typically self-aggrandising statement, but one that inadvertently hit the nail on the head of the problem of Richard Ashcroft: Solo Artist. While no one could argue with the calibre of ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ or ‘Sonnet’, they had been written 19 years previously. Outside of The Verve, Ashcroft’s fortunes had been of the ever-decreasing kind, hitting a nadir with his widely ridiculed hip-hop experiment, 2010’s United Nations Of Sound.

His most recent effort, 2016’s These People, did return Ashcroft back – a few curious dabblings in electronica aside – to more tried and tested waters, though: massive choruses bolstered by large orchestras and catch-all Everyman rhetoric. For the follow-up, he’s doubled down on that return to first principles. Natural Rebel’s title is something of a misnomer. Rather than breaking any moulds, this is straight-up, unabashed soft rock. In white suit, aviators and acoustic guitar held aloft, he even looks like Neil Diamond on the cover. Yet Ashcroft’s long-standing fondness for radio-friendly MOR, more so than any bug-eyed Captain Rock adventuring, probably explains why The Verve have shifted more than 10 million records. And this is easily the strongest set of tunes he’s put out this millennium.

Opener ‘All My Dreams’ is pared-back, windows-wound-down drive-time rock that could pass for Tom Petty; Ashcroft’s soulful rasp framed by little more than a punchy two guitars, drums and bass set-up. Restraint isn’t a characteristic trait, but these songs are rarely given more than they need. The pedal steel that sighs in the pauses of the breezy strum-along ‘Birds Fly’; the organ glinting behind the dirty Stones strutting of ‘Born to Be Strangers’; the string parts that chirrup away in counterpoint to the none-more-positive ‘Surprised By The Joy’. Throughout, strings aren’t used to inflate a song past breaking point, but rather to quietly accentuate the overall warm, high-fidelity richness.

There is one sizeable fly in the ointment, though. Anyone looking for some sounds that recognise the pain in them might be disappointed. For a large part here, Ashcroft’s lyrics pinball from well-worn clichés (“Your beauty is so fine, it really blows my mind”) to the daft (“You could be Yoko, I could be John, we’ll stay in bed and they’ll ban the bomb”). Millionaire rock stars finding something to write about in middle age isn’t a new problem, but by the time he’s shouting, “I want my money!” over the screwed-up-face soloing on anti-capitalist broadside ‘Money Money’, it’s difficult to not stifle a snigger.

But then that penchant for the preposterous, the blithely unselfconscious, bullet-proof self-belief has always been a huge part of Ashcroft’s appeal. He’s Captain Rock, here to take on the world! These songs might not defeat Fu Manchu, but they’re a fine addition to Richard Ashcroft’s hand.

- By Jake White


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