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Richard Ashcroft - Human Conditions

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Artist: Richard Ashcroft

Album: Human Conditions

Label: Virgin

Review date: May. 28, 2003

Bittersweet At Best

Much like the Hindenburg disaster, Richard Ashcroft’s Human Conditions opens with legitimate spectacle and then continues to burn and disintegrate, much to the horror of those watching on the ground. Those spectators are, of course, Ashcroft fans, which I consider myself to be. And I can’t help but cover my eyes as I listen to this new album of his, as I imagine a once terribly gifted songwriter suffocate under a pompous production that could only be rivaled by Cats.

Easily 30 minutes too long and four symphony orchestras too many, Human Conditions feels like a soundtrack to Barnum and Bailey, with Ashcroft’s earnest vocals drowned out by a cast of thousands. Ashcroft’s work with the Verve, one of the most under-appreciated bands of the nineties, was at once equally soulful and psychedelic. Over the course of three albums, ending with the seminal Urban Hymns, Ashcroft created intricate pop songs, tightly composed but never fearing to run past the five minute mark. Yet, with the band’s demise, the birth of a son and a new Thoreau-inspired take on life, Ashcroft seemed to retire early. His first solo album, Alone With Everybody, enforced this assumption, with the studio musicians and technicians adding more to the music than Ashcroft. Every song had so many overdubs that it sounded like he was singing with a master race of his clones, muting any sense of melody.

With the critism Ashcroft received from Alone With Everybody one would expect he would take the press and public’s opinion to heart. Instead though, it seems Ashcroft is trying the “maybe they’ll like it this time” approach. Well maybe. I certainly didn’t. Human Conditions is a big album, dealing with big themes and made up of larger than life compositions. The result constantly straddles the bad/bland fence. On the bland side, the songs nearly all start with light acoustic picking until the church choir or the orchestra or the lone French horn come in. On the bad side, many of the songs have no discernable structure: just instruments playing and lyrics filled with vague spiritual observations.

The album starts strong: “Check the Meaning's" jazz guitar riff leads into the drum and vocals confidently - apparently a worthy first single. Ashcroft sings: “Can you hear what I’m saying / Got my mind mediating on love.” While he may not be Martin Amis, he occasionally has the ability to make the most inane lines sparkle with some type of Bible-raising authenticity. Tragically, “Check the Meaning” dissolves into pure tedium. After standard three choruses, several orchestras fade in and Ashcroft starts rapping. “Jesus Christ doing his thing / Making you dance, making you sing.” Song ruined. What could’ve been a passable four minute pop song is now a seven minute mess. It almost seems like Ashcroft needs a stronger producer, one who will put his foot down, telling him: “Richard, mate, you’ve had your fun. Now let’s cut down the song to something worthwhile again.”

Other tracks fare no better: “Bright Lights” completely lacks any semblance of structure. The runaway tablas in the background don’t help the song a bit since the electric guitar sounds like Ashcroft is letting his infant son do the strumming. The title “Buy It In Bottles” hints at a great Cockney drinking song but reveals itself as some sappy piece about how spirituality is now mass produced and, hence, apparently bought in bottles. “Science of Silence” sounds suspiciously like “Lean on Me” and many of the album’s later tracks have a light guitar/ inspirational feeling like Ashcroft is scoring a video for the Latter Day Saints.

Richard Ashcroft has a great voice and usually a wonderfully swaggered delivery. Here, his observations are lame and music surrounding it is even worse. It’s the type of feel-good music that would suit an “Up With People” pre-show. It’s tough to calmly offer constructive criticism to this album that incites groans and head scratching to all whom I’ve played it for. So, perhaps the third time is the charm and Ashcroft’s next will redeem him in my eyes. Until then, Phil Collins finally has someone to tour with.

By Addison MacDonald

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