his is the point at which it becomes hideously clear that Richard Ashcroft’s ego far outreaches his talent. Human Conditions is the sound of a bloated, self-satisfied ‘star’ proclaiming his faux-genius loudly from the rooftops, and it is rubbish.
Ashcroft’s rampant ego has been in evidence ever since Urban Hymns, less the product of a band than a clandestine solo debut. Looking back on The Verve’s career it is eerily apparent that Ashcroft slowly squeezed Nick McCabe out of the band over the course of their three albums, his vocals literally usurping McCabe’s unpredictable, reverb-saturated guitars in the mix until they dominated the sound. Their third album no longer saw songwriting credits attributed to the band as a whole, Ashcroft claiming sole credit for nine of the tunes. As a result, Urban Hymns shied away from danger and chaos in favour of song-based predictability, and ended up an unexciting, overly smooth record, which finally found Ashcroft the mass audience that he had always predicted and craved. His face writ large on the cover, Alone With Everybody continued the slick, polished over-production and mature singer-songwriter approach, with strings, mawkish sentiment and Ashcroft’s increasingly affected vocals combined to limply arrogant affect. Like others before him, Ashcroft clearly saw himself as leaving the sphere of pop or rock music, and stepping over the threshold into the realm of the serious ‘artiste’.
Human Conditions sees Richard Ashcroft grabbing hold of his legacy, his ego, and what remains of his talent, and sailing even further up his own arse with them. The cover sees him in tasteful, classicist black and white, attired as the aristocrat-wannabe rockstar, smoking a cigarette and posing like Steve McQueen on some empty, nameless racetrack. Is this the man who once (literally) died for rock ‘n’ roll? I don’t think so.
Weighing in at a burdensome 55 minutes over just ten tracks, one knows Human Conditions is going to be a slog as soon as it enters the CD player. Opening track ‘Check The Meaning’ only serves to confirm this. Self-consciously epic and meaningful, strings and horns are applied to its tepid, stagnant tempo like polish to a turd while Ashcroft ponders how much more wise and weary he is than everybody else, his increasingly Americanised drawl utterly bereft of feeling. “Can you hear what I’m sayin’?” he asks, “got my mind meditatin’ on love,” and we can only conclude that meditatin’ on love must be a very dull and ponderous thing to do. Towards the end there is a spoken word piece about “holes in the sky” and “Jesus Christ” and “buying time.” Had he not wasted 8 minutes on this ego-massaging dirge he might have saved himself money and his listeners annoyance.
On ‘So It Goes’ from A Northern Soul, Ashcroft intoned the mantra “another drink and I won’t miss her” over a gloriously fucked-up outro, momentarily capturing the burnt heart of anyone who ever tried sinking loss deep in alcohol. On ‘Buy It In Bottles’ he cack-handedly attempts to reprise those feelings, moaning over the chorus that “I know you can buy it in bottles / and I know you can bind it with pills”, but instead of being cathartic it is excruciating for altogether different reasons.
Widdly, country-esque guitars float around the mix on almost every track, unsure what to do with themselves, the playing scaling new heights of insipid session-musician blandness and the production polished like a high-performance sports car left to rot in a wanker’s garage. It’s Ashcroft himself who really makes this record unbearable though. Time and again he stretches already-weak melodies to breaking point in order to make his consistently dire lyrics scan. ‘Bright Lights’ tries to rock by tying polite feedback to some embarrassingly crap bongos, while ‘Paradise’ rips off the string part from The Verve’s own ‘Lucky Man’ before making some oblique reference to Big Star and promising to “sail away in the morning”, which really couldn’t come too soon. ‘Science Of Silence’ manages to plumb new depths of lyrical cackness, spiritual claptrap and pseudo-meaningful nonsense (“she’s a university / a cosmic library”? “we are on a rock spinning in infinity”?) combined to such jaw-dropping effect that it actually made me laugh out-loud on first hearing. The less said about such awful shite as ‘God In The Numbers’, ‘Man On A Mission’ and ‘Nature Is The Law’ the better.
Human Conditions is a truly awful record, simultaneously redolent of Marillion, Pink Floyd, Phil Collins and the kind of bad country music that thankfully rarely escapes from Nashville. Ashcroft obviously sees himself as some kind of incisive commentator with a greater depth of understanding of the human condition than those around him. This record reveals with alarming clarity that he is actually a poor songwriter, dire lyricist, and arrogant buffoon all at the same time. Thinking back to the Jason Pierce / Kat Radley / Richard Ashcroft love triangle that informed Spiritualized’s Ladies And Gentlemen... and The Verve’s A Northern Soul and Urban Hymns, and it is now apparent that while Ashcroft may have got the girl, Pierce definitely got the tunes. I hope I never have to listen to this record again.