Richard Ashcroft nonetheless has it, the spark that separates the prime tier of frontmen from the journeymen toilers. At the Roundhouse the former Verve leader created for mesmerising viewing, projecting a mix of arrogant disdain and passionate commitment, 1 moment eyeballing the audience from behind rock-star sunglasses, the subsequent punching the air in full rabble-rousing mode.
Throughout one particular song there have been no fewer than seven spotlights educated on him. He looked lean and intense, as considerably so at 44 as he did in his Britpop heyday. “Up for it,” in the lingo of that vanished era. Meanwhile, his backing musicians, who went unintroduced, stood in the shadows. “Well played, boys,” Ashcroft stated at the finish of “Music Is Power” in a moment of magnanimity.
Yes, Ashcroft nonetheless has it. But what he does not have are the songs to match the swagger. Or rather he did, nearly 20 years ago: but no more.
This week he releases These Men and women, his initial solo album in a decade. The tracks debuted at the Roundhouse were underwhelming.
“Out of My Body”, sung by Ashcroft with a gas mask dangling about his neck, was unmemorable techno-rock about state surveillance, at as soon as urgent and dull. “This Is How It Feels” had a good sense of stadium rock bombast but took an age to erect its slow-creating verse-chorus-verse scaffolding.
String arrangements (played on a synthesiser) echoed The Verve’s 1997 album Urban Hymns. But his former group’s volatile chemistry has proved impossible to replicate. “They Do not Own Me” belied its message of independence by sounding like an Urban Hymns clone, a defiant singalong doomed not be sung along to.
At least Ashcroft was in very good voice: his statuesque transatlantic drawl bestrode the music like a colossus. “Break the Evening with Colour”, from his 2006 album Keys to the World, marked a partial breakthrough, ending with the singer playing a wild electric guitar solo and bellowing “Yeah!”
But the longed-for release of energy only came when he revisited his Verve songs, climaxing in a majestic rendition of “Bitter Sweet Symphony”. Though unable to scale new heights, Ashcroft can nonetheless reach the old ones.
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