Richard Ashcroft has had an eventful career. Not satisfied with his impressive three break-ups with The Verve and his pedestrian solo outfit, he’s now turned his attention towards a new group: RPA and the United Nations of Sound. Unfortunately, this might as well be another Ashcroft solo album. Ashcroft is still the centre of attention, occasionally over-singing and showing his clear limitations without his old band behind him; The Verve this sure isn”t.
Things start off in a predictable trend. Ashcroft seems to have fallen in love with string arrangements since the days of Urban Hymns, and it’s clear that he’s still attempting to use the same tricks here. But whereas “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was an absolute classic back in 1997, “Are You Ready” won”t be taking its heralded crown anytime soon. It’s saddening to see how far Ashcroft has fallen. Once the lyricist who alluded to the Butterfly Effect: “You could flap your wings a thousand miles away” on A Storm in Heaven, we now see Ashcroft repeating the words “Are you ready” ad infinitum on the first track on offer here.
It seems to be an issue with much of the CD – basing entire songs around simple vocal loops. The worst offender of this is “Beatitudes,” which seems completely misplaced on an Ashcroft album. A female vocal sample repeats “Beatitudes” for much of the song, whilst Ashcroft sings about nothing in particular over the top of the beat. It’s ambitious that Ashcroft and the gang would attempt something a little different on this album; “America” and “Life Can Be So Beautiful” enter a gentle hip-hop setting (although the latter is a little embarrassing to listen to), whilst there’s plenty of room to snuggle up under the covers and make love to Ashcroft during the subtle ballad “This Thing Called Life.” However, the sporadic placing of different genres doesn’t exactly play in the albums favour: it seems clumsy to flow from anthem-clapping to gentle piano-ballad, then into hazy guitar territory across three tracks. The pacing and sequencing of the album doesn”t seem to be well thought out – these tracks could be in any order without any loss or gain of enjoyment.
It’s not all terrible. “Royal Highness” has a melody reminiscent of “Dirty Water” by The Jesus and Mary Chain, and is just as enjoyable to listen to. It’s evidence enough that Ashcroft can still make upbeat, enjoyable music when he puts his mind to it. The highly orchestrated “Good Loving” is ambitious in scope and celebratory, rivalling something that The Verve may have recorded during the Forth sessions.
RPA and the United Nations of Sound are hit-and-miss. Occasionally Ashcroft et al. deliver the goods, creating something inspiring that can make you want to jump up and sing. But it’s also a good slice of evidence to suggest that Ashcroft’s best days are behind him – too many songs on offer here meander for too long without any development; too many genres are thrown together into the melting pot in the hopes of making something rewarding. On the album closer “Let My Soul Rest” Ashcroft addresses the listener, “Are you with me?” Whether delivered earnestly or merely to fill the musical void, the answer is always going to be “I hope not.” It would have been cool to take Ashcroft’s hand during his prime. Now it makes me feel dirty all over.