This world offers very few givens, but some things are axiomatic: power will corrupt, the Yankees will win and the Red Sox will lose, and rock stars, sooner or later, will try to “get deep.” So it is that with his new LP Human Conditions, ex-Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft gets his metaphysics on.
“Metaphysics,” you say? Yup, and if you don’t believe me just check out some of the track titles for yourself: “Paradise,” “God in the Numbers,” “Nature Is the Law,” “The Miracle.” This is heavy stuff, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Nor is it entirely terra incognita for Ashcroft, who built his reputation on Verve classics like “Bittersweet Symphony” and “The Drugs Don’t Work,” as well as his 2000 debut album Alone With Everybody. By all accounts, “lighthearted” is not a word one would associate with Richard Ashcroft.
Neither is “hack,” and most of Human Conditions bears this out. The epic existential sweep of leadoff track “Check the Meaning” sets the tone for the rest of the album, and it feels a lot shorter than its eight minutes. While “meditating on love” and (very thoroughly) name checking “Mohammed, Allah, Buddha, Jesus Christ,” Ashcroft invites the listener to “Feel what I’m saying.” Get it?
While the philosophy may be a little murky, the guitars are not, and they abound. “Man on a Mission” features a panoply of guitar techniques: edgy flourishes, acoustic strumming, and electric dueling. Beautiful string arrangements (which will inevitably be described as “sweeping”) and a gospel choir back up what is by far the prettiest melody on the album. Also singing backup is pop deity Brian Wilson; “Nature Is the Law” benefits mightily from his distinctive harmonies, which resonate powerfully with Ashcroft’s deeper crooning. Along with the faintly New Wave bounce of bonus track “The Miracle,” it points the way to a happy marriage of form and content.
The problem is that too often the music seems less a partner and more second fiddle to Ashcroft’s musings. Thus, “Running Away” does anything but run, poking along tediously whilst Ashcroft invokes the Smashing Pumpkins. “There’s a killer in me and a killer in you,” he sings. Duh. Even less interesting is “Lord I’ve Been Trying,” which rehashes the familiar theme of life as Sisyphean ordeal. Still, Ashcroft doesn’t quite let his inquisitiveness run amok. As he often — and rightly — intones, “It’s gonna be alright.”