29
Feb 00

RICHARD ASHCROFT – “A Song For The Lovers”

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Richard Ashcroft used to be in a band called Verve, as you possibly know. The thing about Verve was that the word – with its connotations of lightness, cheek and speed – was the last thing you’d have flashed on when you heard the band’s music. At its best this music was a gorgeous igneous flow of guitar or string, and and at its recent worst it was weighty, soporific, stadium-cosmic rock, less sturm und drang than strum and drab.

I first heard Verve at their best, an eight-minute single called Gravity Grave: on the cover, a man walked naked into a fluoresced sea. On the disc, music pulsed and waxed around a central mantric hook- “To me you’re like the setting sun / You shine and you’re gone”. Which wasn’t exactly profound, but it was unprofound in a loved-up, star-spanning way that was pretty seductive to a pop kid like me, especially since it was, in its slow way, catchy too.

There was much talk in the music press about Nick McCabe, the band’s guitarist, and his effects pedals, and the right-on undercurrent was that since McCabe could afford all these effects pedals he couldn’t possibly mean it. But ‘meaning it’ was the last thing the guy’s music could have done anyway – that would have meant coalescing, abandoning its textured nebular drift for a more pointed kind of songwriting. Back then you would have said much the same about ‘Mad’ Richard Ashcroft, too. But look what happened: the band conquered Britain, five years after Gravity Grave, with an album which, while not entirely trad, certainly had enough potatoes to its meat to sell to an audience who’d played out their copies of Morning Glory and were ready for some more Big Rock.

Since the saleable sound of Urban Hymns was widely represented as being Ashcroft’s personal triumph over McCabe’s sound-for-sound’s-sake shenanigans. I’d have expected more of the same from “Song For The Lovers”, but in fact Ashcroft’s first solo single is very hard to get a grip on. It’s widescreen, of course – the man’s not spent years working on that swooping, Tim-Buckley-beat-poet voice in order to back it up with Belle And Sebastian – but it’s widescreen in a strangely confused way. The shuffling pop beats and Latin flourishes Ashcroft uses wrong-foot you: for all the production overcook, this is the flightiest music he’s ever been involved with.

And yet some things don’t change – his band may have started out unfashionably spaced, but Ashcroft himself has always been steeped in classic rock’n’roll narratives. His specific thing is here is transcendence, music as journey, pilgrimage or escape – he’s on a train in a foreign land, without a ticket, going who knows where. It’s not a massive progression from a man walking naked into the sea, leaving his life behind. It’s not, either, particularly interesting. “Song For The Lovers” may build its – reasonable – hook around Ashcroft’s lover, but there’s no real sense of her in the song, just the lingering idea that Ashcroft thought love would be quite a heavy thing to write a song about, man. It’s the same old rock story – narcisissm in the love song’s clothing.

After spending most of 1999 reading its obituaries, British rock music is staging some kind of fightback. But while the music may not be trad – “Song For The Lovers” isn’t breaking any ground but it sounds fresher than anyone might have expected – the rhetoric is stale. Primal Scream could quite easily have let the violence of their recent music speak for itself, but they had to go and jazz it up with the sort of punky revolution chic which niches it before it’s even hit the streets. Similarly, Richard Ashcroft is back and appropriately Messianic, but he’s certainly not telling a new story. There’s only so often you can take his kind of baggy metaphysical yearning without wanting something a bit more concrete, and I reached my limit long ago.

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