Put on a Richard Ashcroft record, and suddenly, everything changes. The room you're sitting in will be gilded in a dusky glow, no matter what time it is, no matter if the curtains are wide open or drawn up tight. If you're driving, you won't see the gridlock, garish billboards, or highway haze -- instead, your view will be dominated by the beauties of the natural landscape on the horizon, your senses calmed by the hum of your engine and the ascending and descending of hills. Your headphones on, walking down a crowded promenade, you'll revel in the peace of your own space. Your headphones on, walking down a side street alone, you'll feel as comfortable as if a friend were by your side.
Richard Ashcroft is neither a Messiah nor a magician -- simply put, he's a brilliant songwriter with an intoxicating though approachable tenor, a master at melodies that wander without wandering off, race without racing away. After the Verve called it quits post Urban Hymns -- what many critics agree is one of the essential Britrock album of the late '90s -- Ashcroft went solo, delivering Alone With Everybody in 2000. That album showed Ashcroft zeroing in on the mid-tempo numbers and pensive, contented ballads, and doing less of the pulsating rock, which also marked, and in many ways defined, the success of his Verve-ier days. Indeed, Ashcroft, who at the time had recently married and become a father, was conveying a maturity and satisfaction that to some signaled the end of his glory days. But it also hinted at an evolution and a profound, learned gift.
Human Conditions, Ashcroft's newest release, is that gift. It is the best of what Ashcroft does best: thoughtful incantations teeming with emotion, clarity, and vision. The first song, "Check the Meaning", billows for close to eight minutes, pondering "the human condition" -- a traverse across states of emotional, spiritual, and (meta)physical life. "When I'm low, and I'm weak, and I'm lost, I don't know who I can trust", Ashcroft sings, his backup the signature ebb and flow of easygoing guitar playing and sweeping strings. Other lyrics proclaim "there's no time, no space, no law -- we're out here on our own", and "yeah life, doing its thing, making you cry, making you sing".
For sure, Ashcroft's appeal is his ability to tell it -- and play it -- like it is. His content is organic, his form, only as elaborate as it needs to be, yet the composite effect is a remarkable beauty and an ineffable, almost holy, sway. Perhaps some of that comes, this time around, in the emphasis on more spiritual content. The soulful churchiness of "God in the Numbers" and confessional piety of "Lord I've Been Trying" blatantly adopt these influences, but there are other traces. "Science of Silence", whose first few bars are reminiscent of a hymn, engages personal needs in the context of universal forces ("We are on a rock, spinning silently / But I'm safe when you're here with me") -- questions humans have been asking gods, goddesses, and each other for millennia. "Man on a Mission" is soothed by a choir of female background vocals and, sonically, swells with pride as it grows into its chorus, reaching assuredly for a higher purpose. The album's final number, "Nature is the Law" featuring harmonies from Brian Wilson (of Beach Boys fame), is a voluminous songscape built on gravitational vocals and righteous faith.
For sure, Human Conditions is an album for introspection and resolution -- which might further alienate Verve fans who miss the extroversion and defiance, albeit sometimes self-directed, that were part and parcel of any Verve output. But minus the Ashcroft soul, the body of the Verve is hollow indeed (check out this year's release from The Shining, a crew that's 2/5 ex-Verve-ers, for the pitiful case in point); while the soul on its own finds a universe in which to expand. And through that lens -- where one must seek out a place for oneself -- is where the entire world changes.