Perhaps the reason Britpop galvanized so sublimely was that everyone played their individual role to such splendid perfection. Damon Albarn was its cheeky social commentator, Brett Anderson its debauched poet, Jarvis Cocker its voice of the downtrodden, and the Gallaghers its working class lads turned swaggering, glamorous rock gods.
The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft, despite his band’s early flirtations with substance-induced sonic space travel, was Britpop’s obligatory tortured romantic. Indeed, in a most Byron-esque exploit, he even went as far as to steal Spiritualized’s Kate Radley away from her lover/bandmate Jason Pierce—and then write pretty much an entire album, 2000’s Alone With Everybody, about her. It went straight to number one in Blighty. All apologies to Pierce, certainly.
His first solo album in six years finds him back in his familiarly affective but downtrodden form, hard-baring his weary, tattered soul from start to finish. His raggedy but graceful voice is once again pouring out all manner of forlorn confessionals and ideological pleas. Perhaps he spent the time away contemplating and cultivating the critical drubbing of his unloved 2010 folly United Nations of Sound. Indeed, he told NME recently, “A lot of the hate and negativity has been a great fuel for me. Unfortunately for my critics, with every negative ounce of frustrated sweat they put into that piece, it’s like wind in my fucking sails.”
To be sure, the ship has once more set to sea—and Ashcroft is again despairingly navigating the violent waters of what he calls “dark” personal times and a “sick nihilistic age of war.” And as the album opens with the anthemic “Out of My Body,” he seems to be pleading for some sort of psychological oblivion, howling out the semi-manifesto “Out of my mind / Free of control / The way I like it.”
A long-admitted clinical depressive, he then plays very much to type on the deeply cynical “Ain’t the Future So Bright.” A husband and father, he still seems to view human relationships as basically fraudulent: “Lord I can’t believe it / I’m too numb to feel it” he grimly reveals. Cheer up, daddy! Then perhaps as a derisive retort to R.E.M.’s cosseting “Everybody Hurts,” Ashcroft suggests that “Everybody Needs Somebody to Hurt.” Ouch. And when he scorns, “No one seems to be caught in your magic spell,” you can’t help but think he’s directing that statement inward, perhaps in search of a magic that no longer serves him quite as well.
Sonically, These People falls back on his penchant for occasional widescreen grandiosity and an overarching elegance tempered by middling restraint. Ashcroft’s familiar, melancholy guitar strumming does get the occasional boost from Will Malone’s majestic, haunted string arrangements.
Yet there is a psalm-like quality here as he seemingly struggles to write his way into some manner of salvation. And one can’t help but want for the proceedings to rise to some level of genuine visceral fire. It’s as if, rather than striving for life-altering redemption, he is resigned to simply pulling us down into the mire with him.
“There’ll be no heroes on this battlefield,” he concedes.
Ashcroft, it would seem, remains ultimately at war with himself.