Ex-Verve singer teams up with the cream of modern R&B for some far-out funk soul brotherhood
In a notoriously bitchy and jealous industry, few English musicians are as widely respected by their peers as the intriguingly mercurial, prodigiously talented and impressively angular Richard Paul Ashcroft (or RPA, as he’s billed himself here). Their mutual admiration of 'Captain Rock' is probably one of the few things the Gallagher brothers agree on nowadays, and Coldplay's Chris Martin introduced him at Live 8 as "the best singer in the world." It's unlikely that Ashcroft would've disagreed with Martin's assessment. Never particularly renowned for his modesty, the Wigan-born star once reportedly informed an audience that, 'Bitter Sweet Symphony' "is one of the greatest pieces of modern art created by anyone."
In fairness, he's only slightly exaggerating (and what would you expect from a man who once told an interviewer he could fly - and he wasn’t talking about aircrafts). A self-confessed depressive with a history of substance abuse, the singer has always musically turned his frowns upside down through big memorable tunes with intimate sentiments. More of an eccentric maverick than a fame-hungry celebrity, Ashcroft has crafted more than his fair share of epic rock classics over four albums with The Verve and three successful solo records.
Having reformed The Verve in 2007, only for the band to dramatically implode again last summer, he hasn't wasted very much time getting another outfit together. While this album is essentially his fourth solo release, the sheer calibre of his studio cohorts can’t be denied. Thus they're being credited as The United Nations Of Sound.
Recorded in Los Angeles, New York and London, the album was produced by Chicagoan hip-hop maestro No ID, best known for his sterling work with Jay-Z and Common. Joining them for a reportedly intense 10-day studio session in Brooklyn were guitarist Steve Wyreman, who normally plays with Mary J. Blige, and renowned soul/R&B bassist Paul 'DW' Wright and percussionist Derrick Wright. String arrangements were handled by Benjamin Wright, the man responsible for the strings on Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, and engineered by Grammy-winning Motown legend Reggie Dozier (Outkast, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, etc).
So no shortage of serious talent in the studio, then. It certainly wasn't wasted. While they might be called The United Nations Of Sound, this is very much an American record - steeped in the sounds, styles and sentiments of the US of A (one track is even titled 'America', and 'How Deep Is Your Man' wears its Mississippi blues influence heavily). Fresh, experimental and innovative, it brilliantly blends psychedelic rock, funk, soul, hip-hop, and some old skool R&B, utilising strings, samples, horns, guitars and guest MCs. It doesn’t sound like anything Ashcroft has ever produced before - and where it does, it’s a serious progression. His vocals are absolutely amazing throughout, ranging from high pitched falsettos to gravelly raps to heartfelt hymns.
Keeping with all themes American, religion - or at the very least gospel music - is another obvious influence (the album had the working title Redemption). It opens with the string-laden 'Are You Ready': "Are you ready for the day he's gonna come back to earth/ I hope you're gonna pray." This is followed by 'Born Again', which begins with the alarming declaration, "I'm born again" - though he qualifies that with the Jim Morrison steal, "Cancel my subscription to the resurrection." Later on the brilliant 'Beatitudes', he sings, "This is the beatitudes/ this is the gospel truth."
Melancholic tracks like 'Let’s Do This Thing Called Life' and 'She Brings Me The Music' (an ode to his wife) are direct descendants of 'The Drugs Don’t Work'. The Bill Withers influenced ‘Life Can Be So Beautiful’ is equally melancholic, but in that spiritually uplifting upbeat way Ashcroft excels at.
A bittersweet Stateside symphony, with working drugs, this is easily his best work since Urban Hymns. Four stars with funky stripes.