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Richard Ashcroft still has it, the spark that separates the top tier of frontmen from the journeymen toilers. At the Roundhouse the former Verve leader made for mesmerising viewing, projecting a mix of arrogant disdain and passionate commitment, one moment eyeballing the audience from behind rock-star sunglasses, the next punching the air in full rabble-rousing mode.
During one song there were no fewer than seven spotlights trained on him. He looked lean and intense, as much so at 44 as he did in his Britpop heyday. “Up for it,” in the lingo of that vanished era. Meanwhile, his backing musicians, who went unintroduced, stood in the shadows. “Well played, boys,” Ashcroft said at the end of “Music Is Power” in a moment of magnanimity.
Yes, Ashcroft still has it. But what he does not have are the songs to match the swagger. Or rather he did, almost 20 years ago: but no more.
This week he releases These People, his first solo album in a decade. The tracks debuted at the Roundhouse were underwhelming.
“Out of My Body”, sung by Ashcroft with a gas mask dangling around his neck, was unmemorable techno-rock about state surveillance, at once urgent and dull. “This Is How It Feels” had a nice sense of stadium rock bombast but took an age to erect its slow-building verse-chorus-verse scaffolding.
String arrangements (played on a synthesiser) echoed The Verve’s 1997 album Urban Hymns. But his former group’s volatile chemistry has proved impossible to replicate. “They Don’t Own Me” belied its message of independence by sounding like an Urban Hymns clone, a defiant singalong doomed not be sung along to.
At least Ashcroft was in good voice: his statuesque transatlantic drawl bestrode the music like a colossus. “Break the Night with Colour”, from his 2006 album Keys to the World, marked a partial breakthrough, ending with the singer playing a wild electric guitar solo and bellowing “Yeah!”
But the longed-for release of energy only came when he revisited his Verve songs, climaxing in a majestic rendition of “Bitter Sweet Symphony”. Although unable to scale new heights, Ashcroft can still reach the old ones.