Richard Ashcroft deserves kudos for his, um, balls. But then again, a man who claims his last recording, 2002's Human Conditions, was the artistic equal of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On is tough to like, too. While many thought he had slunk into the murky depths after the critical and commercial drubbing of Human Conditions, Ashcroft was simply pondering what happened and deciding it was everybody else's fault the record tanked. Three and a half years later, the Verve's former frontman is back with a record not terribly different, though certainly more pastoral and perhaps more middle of the road. Those who fell in love with 2000's Alone with Everybody will have a tougher time here just as they did with Human Conditions. But really, it's not the record's fault. Ashcroft uses a burping horn section and a few layers of raw, rusty electrics on "Why Not Nothing," the opener on Keys to the World, a nefarious anti-religion rant. His snarling vocal riding down inside the rock & roll cacophony is such a breath of fresh air, it's a true departure from his solo work thus far. The messed-up fuzz tone guitar break is glorious. Ashcroft can strut and swagger with the best of them. At least here, Ashcroft reveals he can spit out the rage with the best of rock's big-time frontmen (Jagger, Stewart, et al.). "Music Is Power" reveals the true surprise. It's a Northern soul workout with -- are you ready? -- samples! from Curtis Mayfield no less. (Actually it's from Walter Jackson's "It's All Over," produced and written by Mayfield.) Yep, the guy who ripped off and got raked by Jagger and Richards lawyers for the royalties to "Bittersweet Symphony" has dipped his foot into the digital ocean once more. It's a cool groove, and he rides it well, though there is a bit too much sonic separation between singer and musicians (the set was produced by Ashcroft and longtime mate Chris Potter, who's worked with the Rolling Stones). "Break the Night with Colour" is full of strings, a concert grand piano, some synths (including treated backing chorus), and a patch of guitars to make it a beautifully layered soft rock tune. Nothing "indie" or alternative here, folks, except perhaps his disconsolate lyrics. It's a fine comeback single, but either of the aforementioned tracks would have fared better to lure punters to the album. Other standouts on this well, if leisurely paced, slab include "Words Just Get in the Way," with a set of lyrics that are near narrative (read: not mind-bogglingly nonsensical) for a change. It's a sleepy folk-rock tune with its lonely piano and vocal intro before the muted guitars enter. The strings come in on that second verse and one could close their eyes and picture hearing "Bridge Over Troubled Water" as a bona fide rock song, or early-'70s Neil Diamond being a Brit. The programming blitz on the title track breaks the interior mood a bit and rocks it up. But the sampling is rather dreadful and boring. The rest of the disc simply follows a formula, though it's a pleasant one. Ashcroft introduces everything else here with skeletally placed guitars, pours on the strings, and keeps the tempo on slow, slower, and slowest until the final track, "World Keeps Turning," which is slick, mid-tempo pop/rock. There's nothing wrong with that; it's just a curious way to send a record off. It's got a fine hook, a cool guitar part in the mix, and Ashcroft's vocal is back to being the British Bobby Dylan. What was learned from Keys to the World is that after nearly four years, Ashcroft, despite his own proclamations to greatness, is at the place where he delivers almost entirely what you'd expect -- even if its execution is more attractive.
© Thom Jurek /TiVo