Although the prospect of Richard Ashcroft kicking the ass of Marshall Mathers is a scenario too bizarre even for MTV’s truly appalling Celebrity Death Match series, that’s precisely what happened recently. Well, figuratively at least. Proving that Wigan can have Detroit any time, Ashcroft’s solo debut sailed into the UK album charts at number one to depose the Motor City Mouth, albeit only for a week.
Short-lived as it was, such a coup didn’t come as any great surprise. Alone with Everybody ranks among the most highly anticipated Brit-rock releases this year, generating the level of expectancy that prefaced the last Oasis album and, to a lesser degree, Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR. But, of course, none of the hype answers the questions on everybody’s mind: namely, what, if anything, does the ex-Verve vocalist’s new material have in common with that of his former band? And, more importantly, is it better that the Verve’s parting masterpiece, 1997’s Urban Hymns?
Ashcroft has described his new CD as a record that picks up where Urban Hymns left off. Given his role as the Verve’s principle songwriter, coupled with the fact that Alone features the string arrangements of Will Malone and the production/mixing skills of Chris Potter — both of whom worked on Urban Hymns — then a degree of familiarity might be expected with regard to the sound.
Characteristic aspects of the Verve’s swansong — and of earlier outings like A Storm in Heaven and A Northern Soul — do carry over onto Alone. But while the anthemic sensibility, the stirring string sections, the bluesy, country-tinged balladry and the psychedelic guitar feel are all identifiable, they reappear now in different measures, often reconfigured in arrangements that herald a departure from Ashcroft’s previous work.
Although this is still very much a guitar album, Richard Ashcroft crafts a more diverse sound here. The Verve’s churning, spacey guitar is evoked only sparingly, its rich atmospherics replaced with textures derived from the incorporation of other instruments. Indeed, while the production on Alone is similarly multi-layered, the introduction of more varied instrumentation into the mix — horns, flute, and even harp — yields a brighter, more subtle sound that contrasts with the hard edge and gravity of much of the Verve’s work.
A more dramatic difference is evident in Ashcroft’s lyrics. Gone — for the most part — are the existentially bleak and emotionally fraught lyrical landscapes of the Verve. In their place, Ashcroft has broken new ground, his songs charting warmer, at times sentimental, emotional territories. This marks quite a change for a man who was last heard at the end of Urban Hymns shouting “fuck you” over the climax of “Come On.”
From the outset of Alone, lush ballads of loving bliss are high on the menu. The first UK single, the upbeat and sweeping “A Song For the Lovers” sets the tone with its string-enhanced retro feel. Continuing in the same lyrically romantic vein, the tender and measured “I Get My Beat” is especially memorable for its vocal harmonies, strings and horns.
The salient characteristic of Alone is undoubtedly its country flavor. Ashcroft has spoken of Gram Parsons as an influence on the making of this album and that influence is suggested by the combination of strings and B.J. Cole’s pedal steel guitar on many of the songs. “You On My Mind in My Sleep” — a haunting ballad that calls to mind early ’70s Rolling Stones fare with its strings, piano and pedal steel — and the more melancholy “Brave New World” stand as the most accomplished examples of Ashcroft’s rendering of country music.
The three outstanding tracks on Alone — each one quite different from the others — attest to the newfound range of Ashcroft’s songwriting. “On a Beach” might not be as immediate or as epic as “Bitter Sweet Symphony” — its sound not so much marching as drifting — but it is certainly no less anthemic or emotive. Especially noteworthy on this cut is B.J. Cole’s pedal steel at its evocative best. “New York” is the only track that fully revisits the harder drive of the Verve. With its dizzying guitar grind and its Primal Scream-esque horns, it captures the once-in-a-lifetime gut-level thrill that the experience of a new place can trigger. Although Ashcroft’s lyrics articulate that mythical moment via a laundry list of dire sixth-form clichés about the Big Apple, the urgency and excitement are, nevertheless, vividly conveyed by the emotional tenor of his vocals. With its exultant horns and its driving rhythms, the joyful gospel rock of “Money to Burn” is an unqualified success. While Spiritualized must be the only band in the world able to turn the gospel form into a bit of a downer (albeit quite brilliantly), with this song Richard Ashcroft raises the genre back up again, injecting it with generous amounts of love and energy.
Still, Alone is not without its weak spots. “C’mon People (We’re Making it Now)” is unremarkable and unimaginative, polished rockism and “Slow Was My Heart” is a humdrum affair on which the strings get to be a bit much.
Some will inevitably cite Alone with Everybody as evidence that Ashcroft — once touted as Britain’s last rock star — has lost his vitality as a songwriter, but nothing could be further from the truth. This new material never fully loses sight of past victories, but it also sees Ashcroft expanding his musical and lyrical horizons, fashioning songs in different styles and from elements of different styles. While the results display a degree of subtlety and craft that songs like “Sonnet” and “The Drugs Don’t Work” only hinted at, Alone with Everybody also makes the point that you don’t have to draw on angst to write great, memorable rock songs. Indeed, this album is — as one reviewer has already suggested — less Urban Hymns and more suburban hymns: a more settled and restrained, but no less engaging musical rendering of being at peace with oneself and one’s world.