A first-rate record – one that you can listen to in its entirety, one in which every song is either better than the last, equally good or memorable just for its capacity to induce chills – is gold.
Richard Ashcroft won me over long ago as lead singer of The Verve, preaching lessons such as those taught in “Bittersweet Symphony” and “Lucky Man” and basically reminding fans to appreciate life’s blessings and challenges. His solo debut, “Alone with Everybody,” ranked high on my list of gold records and now he has returned with his third release “Keys to the World,” the follow-up to 2002’s “Human Conditions.”
Not surprisingly, Ashcroft has once again conjured up masterpieces rife with symbolism, irony and soul, the most important quality any musician can offer up, served on yet another gold record rather than a silver platter.
The record is a short 10 songs long, but each easily flows into the next following a theme of discovery, unquenched passion, misery and love and providing proof that Ashcroft lives in a gloomy world of black and white.
He has always provided a soundtrack for self-pity, allowing the sweet sorrow of the occasionally needed sulk through orchestrated tunes made for dancing and deep reflection, but this time he has also snuck in a lasting aura of hope.
Ashcroft’s third album, already measured a success in its UK import form, is a far cry from 2002’s “Human Conditions,” which faltered among fans and critics alike.
“Keys” begins and ends strong, demonstrating that this former front man still has the answers he possessed back when The Verve was riding the success of 1997’s “Urban Hymns.”
Songs such as “World Keeps Turning” and “Break the Night with Colour,” as well as the title track, seem more spiritually and soulfully inspired in the lyrical sense than typical of Ashcroft’s sometimes drug-induced written craft, mostly stemming from the dark, abstract corners of his extraordinarily depressed mind.
The opening track, “Why Not Nothing,” thoughtfully and rhythmically questions why people cling to religious and political ideals, rather than choosing to believe in nothing at all.
The subsequent “Music is Power” has the feel of a 1960s R&B hit, trimmed with an orchestra of strings, and emphasizes Ashcroft’s belief in the ability of a song to lend strength and courage in troubling times.
As he says, “If the melody’s timeless, it won’t let you down.”
The words “don’t give up” are repeated like a mantra throughout the record’s duration, as Ashcroft seemingly refuses to officially bridge the
gap between optimism and pessimism this time around.
“Break the Night with Colour,” his first single written on a harpsichord, is darkly melodious but speaks of a light at the end of the tunnel, or a spot of color in Ashcroft’s otherwise colorless world. Although his music still radiates grief for powers beyond his control in traditional doomsayer fashion, perhaps demonstrated by the lyrics “nothing’s going right today, cause nothing ever does,” it remains obvious that he will trudge on as the world keeps turning.
Ashcroft’s voice, often compared to fellow Brit Mick Jagger’s, has not changed in the least. In fact, it is stronger than ever – throaty and distinctly masculine – while his musical inspirations seemingly lean toward the feminine side, as he conveys an obsession with imperfection, dwells on heartache and seeks answers through song.
“Cry Till the Morning” and “Why do Lovers,” both full of heavy-handed piano chords, together tell the story of a couple in the process of finding love and stand out as strikingly heartbreaking tunes.
As I listened to Ashcroft sing, “First time that I ever saw you/Knew nothing would ever be the same” I was instantly convinced that I had been forever changed.
And “Words Get in the Way” could easily become the “Lean on Me” classic of this decade, revealing the raw vulnerability of a man in love and the close ties of lasting friendship.
Ashcroft openly admits that he has the keys to a “mixed up, suicidal world,” which may be depressing if not so soulfully sung.
He is one of those Brit-pop rock ‘n’ rollers that has held a key to my heart for many years, so it is not hard to believe that he now possesses the power to unlock the world’s doors, at least musically-speaking.
I can only be thankful that he is finally shedding some light on us poor souls starved for decent tunes in this emo-crazed age.
Kady Bell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.