When I think of “Mad Richard” Ashcroft, I think of him having the stoic poetics of Ian McCulloch and unbridled arrogance of Liam Gallagher. But even saying this, I still feel he doesn’t sound like Ian or Liam; he has his own voice, he’s unique and arguably one of the most underrated singers and songwriters of our generation. When one mentions the name of Richard Ashcroft, the image everyone pictures is from the video of “Bittersweet Symphony.” The guy in black walking down the street running into people, not giving a fuck about anything; and that’s his persona, people think that he’s some egotistical singer but what most don’t realize is that, unlike Liam, Ashcroft is far from being a tabloid darling—Richard has always let his music do the talking.
And that’s the problem. When critics and fans select the best album and/or songs from the nineties, Richard Ashcroft and The Verve are missing or buried from these lists. Even so, Richard is still respected by his peers: Noel from Oasis wrote a song, “Cast No Shadow” about him and even Beach Boy genius Brian Wilson sang with him. You think that Wilson would sing with just anyone? As you could imagine, Ashcroft has a little chip on his shoulder. The thing is, from his first two solo releases, you really couldn’t tell that he was pissed for being overlooked from his contemporaries. In fact, he has made some of the loveliest music that at times surpasses his output from The Verve.
Actually, in recent years, it’s that same aspect of Richard Ashcroft’s loveliness that I have had a problem with. His music has been too sweet and sentimental for my musical tastes. The swooping sounds of strings floating in and out of songs from Alone with Everybody and Human Conditions. I love tracks like “Song for the Lovers” and “You Are In My Mind When I Sleep,” but on the album they sound way overproduced. I have copies of those two songs stripped and unplugged, and that’s what I love about Ashcroft. If you take away all the bells and whistles, you get one amazing song and one hell of a songwriter. I think Ashcroft, like another one of my favorite singers, KD Lang, should make an acoustic album. Take away all of that studio trickery and you get the real essence of the man that is Richard Ashcroft.
This brings me to Keys to the World. Keys is my favorite album that “Mad Richard” has released in his post-Verve career. I love it because it encompasses everything that is Richard Ashcroft. That elegant beauty mixed with that powerfully magnificent voice that I have loved since his days of The Verve. I love the harpsichord flavored “Break the Night with Color;” the amazing Curtis Mayfield is sampled on “Music is Power,” making it sound like a seventies love song that you would hear on your Dad’s car stereo, and Richard rocks out with Memphis like horns on “Why Not Nothing?”
But my favorite tracks on Keys are ones that are stripped down to the bone with barely any instrumentation at all. “The Words Get in the Way” is my favorite song on Keys. (It sounds like “Sonnet” circa 2006, one my faves from Urban Hymns). I love the soft piano emptiness and the slide guitar, and I love the way the strings and handclaps don’t get in the way or overpower the song with overproduction. “Sweet Brother Malcolm” is another amazing track—once again, it’s Ashcroft and the acoustic, and though there are a few strings in there, it’s the voice and the guitar that leads the way in this sweet song.
Finally, there is a Richard Ashcroft record that highlights the genius of a songwriter who has been overlooked and will finally get his due. No longer known as the man who only wrote “Bittersweet Symphony,” Ashcroft invites you to open the keys to his world and discover new beautiful creations. This time Keys has that Verve-esque power that has been missing from his solo releases. What is there is the trademark Ashcroft voice, that voice that will inspire and fall in love with a new sound, from a man who’s always been there in the shadows ready for you to hear him again, for the first time.
Bernard Butler – People Move On
The Verve – Urban Hymns
Oasis – Don’t Believe The Truth