Richard Ashcroft: Human Conditions

Devon Powers

Richard Ashcroft

Human Conditions

Label: Virgin
US Release Date: Available as import
UK Release Date: 2002-10-21

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.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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