Buy Here | Listen Below
One quick glance at the cover of Richard Ashcroft’s new album Natural Rebel and it’s strikingly evident that the man some have previously called Mad Richard is anything but mad. Cool, confident and defiant, arm and guitar-adorned hand stretched upward to the sky above, the image suggests a man and musician utterly at peace with the world that surrounds him, not to mention more devoted than ever to the sentiments and songs that inhabit him.
This palpable sense of poise and positivity—which most recently surfaced two years ago on the underappreciated These People’s sublime singles “Hold On” and “They Don’t Own Me”—permeates fifth solo studio album (or sixth, if you include 2011’s United Nations of Sound released under the same “band” moniker). Across Natural Rebel’s ten tracks, Ashcroft conveys a clear and compelling message that he makes music first and foremost to celebrate love in its various forms, the byproduct of this being the enrichment of his own heart and soul, myopic critics and naysayers of his past be damned.
Ashcroft has always had unfair expectations levied upon his shoulders, ever since The Verve parted ways in 1999, a few years after their massively successful magnum opus Urban Hymns (1997) brought him and his bandmates international acclaim beyond their native UK. In the two decades since, far too many journalists and listeners alike have been naively hoping for Urban Hymns Part 2, only to be sorely disappointed that Ashcroft has wisely opted to preserve that precious moment in time and pursue other musical pathways.
His debut solo album Alone With Everybody (2000) was largely lambasted by critics at the time of its arrival, which always confounded me, in light of the consistently strong songwriting and memorable melodies peppered throughout the disc. Critical assessments of his subsequent solo fare to date have also been met with a disproportionate share of scrutiny and lukewarm acceptance at best. Though I suspect that Ashcroft, very much to his credit, gives fuck-all about what media folk have to say about him and his music. Ultimately, music criticism is simply writers’ subjective ramblings that don’t mean a helluva lot in the grand scheme of things, right? And that includes the review you’re reading as we speak, mind you.
What resonates the most from the ten songs on offer here is Ashcroft’s unbridled love of songwriting. He injects the ten songs here with a musical joie de vivre that, while certainly manifested across its precursor albums, achieves full, fantastic bloom on Natural Rebel. Sure, there is nary a bell nor whistle to be heard here, lyrically or sonically. Groundbreaking music this is not, but that’s never really been Ashcroft’s modus operandi anyway. What does shine through, as always, is his trademark earnestness coupled with his penchant for guitar-driven melodies that are modest in scope yet memorable upon impact.
Selected as the set’s lead single, and for good reason, the life-affirming “Surprised By the Joy” finds Ashcroft in self-reflective, eyes-wide-open mode atop an buoyant, symphonic arrangement that’s arguably the album’s finest. Not far behind is the soaring, insistent charm of album opener “All My Dreams” and groove-laden “Born to Be Strangers,” which evokes “Miss You”-era Rolling Stones in good measure.
Other standouts surface with the countrified, slide guitar blessed “Birds Fly,” the hard-rocking, anti-materialism lament of closing track “Money Money,” and “That’s When I Feel It,” which functions as a sequel of sorts to “Music Is Power” (from 2006’s Keys to the World) as Ashcroft proclaims, “And that’s when I feel it / The spirit is moving / The music in motion / The melody’s growing.”
If ever there was a fitting title for an album crafted by Richard Ashcroft, a man devoid of artifice and superficiality who has spent nearly three decades defining his musical identity in opposition to what people expect of him, Natural Rebel is it.
Notable Tracks: “All My Dreams” | “Surprised By The Joy” | “That’s When I Feel It”