I’ve always felt that there were two Richard Ashcrofts – the cocksure ‘Mad Richard’ you often see in his interviews – and the sensitive soul who gave us The Drugs Don’t Don’t Work, Lucky Man and A Song For the Lovers.
Both Richards are in evidence on These People, Ashcroft’s first album in six years, but the combination is not entirely successful.
As with previous solo efforts, Ashcroft and long time collaborator Chris Potter attempt to meld acoustic balladry with flourishes of electronica.
Many of the songs are world-weary with lyrics suggesting a frustration with the relentlessness pace of modern life, so perhaps the dabbling with house and disco is an attempt to convey that disconnect.
But too often the sound clash simply doesn’t fit and the effect is of styles colliding rather than complementing each other.
Like Anohni‘s Hopelessness (reviewed here) Ashcroft at times appeals to to the protest movement, with references to Watergate and workplace exploitation on opener Out Of My Body, and water cannons and pepper spray on Hold On.
But Ashcroft’s writing is less direct than Anohni and his message rather lost in grandiose, broad brush sentiments.
That said, the return of former Verve string arranger Wil Malone is a major plus and while there’s nothing here to match the pair’s work on Urban Hymns, there are a few songs that would definitely have made the subs’ bench.
The title track with its jingle jangle guitars and quiet defiance of ‘These people sent to test us/Sent to play with our minds’ shows that Ashcroft’s voice has lost none of its power over the years.
There are strong echoes of the Verve on the sweeping They Don’t Own Me, while acoustic strummer Black Lines blends dark lyrics with sweet melodies.
Best of all is the closing track Songs Of Experience, which injects a much needed change of pace into proceedings.
Bolstered by a fierce drum backing, it has real attack and is one of the few where the blend of rock and electronica really works.
Like many artists boasting an enviable back catalogue, Ashcroft is doomed to face the charge that his best days are behind him.
But while there’s ample evidence to suggest there might be life in the old dog yet, These People fails to eclipse his late ’90s masterworks.
It’s a pleasure to have him back, but Richard Ashcroft can do better than this and I hope he will.