The dull groove the former Verve frontman seems to have settled into is striking.
Self-belief is a strange thing. It's fine and damn convincing when you're on the way to the top. In 1994, Oasis might have been busy telling everyone who would listen they were the best band in the world, but we bought it because they probably were. It was the same when The Verve hit the big time a few years later, and Richard Ashcroft could stand triumphant before 30,000 people who were all immersed in his shamanic, star-gazing bluster. The problem with an unshakable self-belief comes when you're on the way down. When the audiences start to dwindle and the tunes dry up, having an ego the size of London can look a bit, well, daft.
And so we arrive at this, the erstwhile 'Mad' Richard Ashcroft's third solo album. It's a record that comes with the customary barrage of self-hype, including Ashcroft's ludicrous claim that the songs he's written this time are equal to those on the seven million selling Urban Hymns. That record is something of a hallowed classic of British indie rock, and although flawed and overlong, it tapped into a rich vein of songwriting and a yearning soul that took Ashcroft's wide-eyed ballads to the masses.
It probably goes without saying that the songs here are nowhere near as good as "Bittersweet Symphony" or "The Drugs Don't Work", sounding instead, much like his previous two solo outings. Like those records, Keys to the World finds Ashcroft comfortably settled into the lush, MOR setting that has typified his post-Verve output. Indeed, despite assurances that this time he had ditched the ultra slick values for a rawer, more back-to-basics sound, Keys to the World remains swamped in strings, horns and a glossy polish, giving the album a detached, music-in-the-background feel.
It's a shame because it all starts so promisingly. "Why Not Nothing" is a driving anti-religion rant that finds Ashcroft wailing against "Machiavellian tricks" and "God squads" with a surprising vigour and urgency. Of course it's over the top, but it's at least 10 times as exciting as anything Ashcroft has given us since the Verve. Unfortunately, even a big old Curtis Mayfield sample doesn't stop "Music Is Power" from killing the album’s momentum less than 10 minutes in. The white-boy funk comes across as far too slick and contrived, leaving Ashcroft's cosmic nonsense lyrics stranded helplessly up front. It's by no means awful, but it is bloody frustrating because when he occasionally gets it right, Ashcroft still knows his way blindfolded around a killer melody. The album's first single, "Break the Night with Colour", is buried under a sheen of polished production, but still manages to shine as a simple, beautiful song that is sung wonderfully. It's very nearly this album’s saving grace that Ashcroft is singing better than ever. A song like "Sweet Brother Malcolm" is almost delivered from the plodding lyrics and hackneyed sentiment by Ashcroft's honey-coated vocals; deep and tuneful, and cracking in just the right places.
Ultimately though, it's probably because Keys to the World feels so inconsequential that it disappoints so much. Richard Ashcroft, like Noel Gallagher, Ian Brown and the rest of our Britpop icons, continues to talk the talk, and walk with a cocksure swagger that used to be irresistible but now seems increasingly hollow and deluded. Every time a new album arrives it comes with the promise of a return to form, and it invariably disappoints. Since his performance with Coldplay in front of mega millions at Live 8, Richard Ashcroft's stock is riding pretty high, but in truth, Keys to the World feels like nothing more than a natural progression of his solo work.
Sure it's full of unwavering confidence and some pretty songs, but the dull groove Richard Ashcroft seems to have settled into is striking. We can't reasonably expect a married father in his mid-30s to burn with the same intensity he did 10 years ago, but it doesn't excuse that large parts of this album are unbelievably ordinary. Richard Ashcroft's way with a tune and his voice means that people will still listen to him, but with some of the most exciting music in years exploding from Britain's towns and cities right now, another decent-ish album from another faded indie star, even with all the self-belief in the world, doesn't seem quite enough.