British rocker Richard Ashcroft first made his name as the vocalist for the Verve, a nineties mainstay whose airy Britpop anthems culminated with 1997’s Urban Hymns and its massive singles “Lucky Man” and notably “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” which put the band on a worldwide stage.
Formed by Ashcroft, Guitarist Nick McCabe, Bassist Simon Jones, and Drummer Peter Salisbury, the foursome quickly released A Storm in Heaven in 1993 and A Northern Soul in 1995 before internal strife caused a brief breakup in 1996. Then, with a refreshed lineup, they released the aforementioned Urban Hymns in 1997, thus imprinting their name in Rock history.
Working in a solo capacity for nearly two decades, Ashcroft now returns from a two year break with Natural Rebel, his fifth solo album, out Friday, October 19th through BMG and his own RPA label.
Recorded chiefly at State of the Ark Studios in Richmond, Natural Rebel was written/produced by Ashcroft, with Jon Kelly (Paul McCartney, Kate Bush), and Emre Ramazanoglu (Bobby Gillespie, Jarvis Cocker), adding production help.
Containing ten songs, “Surprised by the Joy,” acts as the lead single and video, making it the first window into the new album. It is essentially a title-track, as it opines, “A natural rebel, here I am / but some of you won’t understand,” perhaps dismissing critics while addressing fans directly.
The accompanying video serves as a loose parallel to the album, if not the vocalist’s career as he briskly leaves a recording studio, emerges to darkness, climbs into his car, and takes a long drive, alternating between slow, winding roads. Though it has been only two years since his last work, Ashcroft additional sings, “Surprised by the joy of this / surprised I’m alive I guess / it’s a one step at a time, my love / say hello to the world again,” perhaps as a dream-pinching idea that even he is surprised to still be working in this field, and successfully, after all this time.
Moving on, “That’s How Strong” is a slow, building ballad which struggles a bit to deliver. It is easily out-shined by the later ballad, “We All Bleed,” a slow, winding later track that features a rich chorus of background vocals and a slow, subtle seventies soul vibe, bringing to mind the highest, widest sweeps made by the Verve during their time atop the lexicon.
As with his earlier work, Natural Rebel alternates between the sounds of Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Mark Knopfler with minimal effort, but always through the filter of growing up outside Manchester, England. Even the vocal strut of Mick Jagger appears at times.
However, none of these influences are blindly aped; instead, Ashcroft pays subtle homage to those singer-songwriters and guitarists who have laid style before, but always manages to put his own distinct flair on the final product.
For example, “Birds Fly” almost has an American country twang, back as usual with a taut string section as has become Ashcroft’s signature, both solo and with the Verve. This is while “That’s When I Feel It” has more touches of his Verve catalog, with soaring strings and wobbly, emotive vocals.
Then “Born to be Strangers” is a 1980s mixture of forceful Springsteen and an electric Knopfler, even with a bit more Jagger, and “Streets of Amsterdam” continues to burn the flame of Knopfler on both vocals and guitar, with mumbled grace.
Lastly, “Money, Money” is a crunching guitar-driven descent into madness, with few lyrics other than the title words, repeated in perpetuity, as the guitar, drums, and some string backing drags the listener down into a pool of excess.
Overall, Richard Ashcroft has grown in the time between now and his initial solo album, Alone with Everybody, which was awash in loud electric Rock. Here, he mixes lighter Rock with harder vocals and the ballads, while only firing about half the time, help to lighten the mood during the valleys.
Natural Rebel sees Richard Ashcroft getting past some personal demons and moving into an almost positive light, while also keeping the connection with his previous work and its fans, who took strength from the shared struggles. Thus, CrypticRock is pleased to award Natural Rebel 4 out of 5 stars.