City Paper is not for tourists.
Richard Ashcroft used to be a badass. With a Jaggeresque face only a caricaturist could love, the singer, thin as a scarecrow and tall as a control tower, first blew through the nation’s capital in 1995, looking for a fight. Seems a certain Washington City Paper scribe—no, not me, but someone equally averse to getting his teeth kicked in by a British pop star—had, that very week, slighted both Ashcroft’s then-band, the Verve, and its sophomore album, A Northern Soul. Smack-dab in the middle of an altogether peaceful 9:30 Club set, the wannabe hooligan from Wican, England, called out to the writer, who just happened to be in attendance, challenging him to some late-night fisticuffs right there on center stage. The sold-out crowd huzzahed in approval; the spillage of blood appeared promising. But seeing as how City Paper music writers are much better lovers than fighters, the double-dared scribe wisely cowered in the shadows, refusing to emerge until the house lights illuminated his hasty retreat.
When Ashcroft next visited D.C., in 1997, his hard angles were already beginning to soften. The Verve was touring behind its blockbuster third release, Urban Hymns—and, more important, the ubiquitous No. 1 single “Bitter Sweet Symphony”—and the lead singer had been mellowed by sudden fame’s myriad trappings (sex, models, drugs, more models). But despite the band’s rocket-ship ride into the mainstream—and charting with two more tunes from the cocky ‘n’ poppy Urban Hymns—rumors of a potential band breakup soon morphed into reality. Ashcroft and lead guitarist Nick McCabe, never the best of chums, finally realized that, fame or no fame, they just couldn’t play together anymore. Ashcroft, it seems, wanted more orchestral sap; McCabe, apparently, wanted more guitar swagger. End of story; end of the Verve.
I’m not entirely sure what happened to Ashcroft, 28, in the past three years—fell in love? found God? bought a puppy?—but the lanky Lothario is now nothing more than a puddle of Hallmark sentiment. On the new Alone With Everybody, his first release as a solo artist, Ashcroft is all about the strings, baby—almost as if “Bitter Sweet Symphony”‘s appearance in a popular Nike ad permanently warped his songwriting style. There’s neither a rock-star taunt nor a rooster strut to be found on this 11-track love letter—and this guy used to roam the London jungles with Liam Gallagher!—and the limp lack of bite, either bitter or sweet, ultimately spells the album’s doom.
A studio perfectionist and, despite this mostly tepid affair, quite a good pop craftsman, Ashcroft busted his ass layering guitars over flutes over saxophones over (ugh) strings. But the time he spent mixing and matching and making it all sound so dreamy should have been dedicated to coming up with a single decent hook. Although his voice is fortified, soulful, and smooth—similar to a young Bono’s but without the awkward falsetto flourishes and strained emotion—he hasn’t built himself many songs to shine on. Opening cut and first single “A Song for the Lovers,” which opens with an ominous string score that has nothing to do with the rest of the feel-good song, builds momentum and builds momentum…until you realize that you’ve somehow missed the chorus. “I Get My Beat,” helped by a sneaky harmonica line that keeps the track afloat on a turgid symphonic sea, begs for some sneering attitude but fades without much impact. And the altogether embarrassing “On a Beach” typifies the disappointing endeavor: vacuous lovelorn lyrics (“I’m out on a beach/Sat on a rock/Thinking of you/And the love I got”), a gushy backdrop, and Ashcroft’s intriguing yet too often inexpressive voice evenly crooning along until the song’s fade.
There is a pleasant stretch of three tunes in the middle of the album, not necessarily catchy but different enough from the rest of the lot to hold your attention. The U2-ish “New York” is earnest, upbeat rock poetry about twilight time in the Big Apple, complete with naive foreigner Ashcroft really digging this hip American town and a funky sonic traffic jam to close things out. “You Are on My Mind in My Sleep” channels Sticky Fingers-era Stones, with a weepy pedal steel guitar and a woozy Hammond organ—and, finally, no goddamn strings—that frame Ashcroft’s suddenly expressive voice. And “Crazy World,” a gauzy memoir of his badass yesterdays, not to mention a tough little nugget that even McCabe would bob his head to, features a greasy mouth harp and a wah-wah guitar finale.
Moody, brooding Ashcroft probably won’t like what I’ve said here, and, who knows, maybe he’ll challenge me to bare-knuckle duel when he rolls through town later this year. Then again, something tells me he’s not much of a brawler anymore. He’s probably more of a slapper. Either way, I’m not too worried: I’m pretty sure I can take him. CP