Photo: Jo Hale / Contributor (Getty Images)
There’s an interesting conflict built into albums like Richard Ashcroft’s Natural Rebel. As the solo work of one of the most influential frontmen of the 1990s, it’s unique to a small number of releases each year. Ashcroft fronted the Verve, a band whose members couldn’t stand to be in the same room with one other by the end. Other Verve members have accused Ashcroft of using a very brief reunion as a way to jumpstart his solo act.
This begs the question: What is fair to expect from an album like this? Surely it can’t be expected to top or overcome what Ashcroft has been involved with in the past, right?
Asking anyone to capture what albums like Urban Hymns did in the late ’90s is unfair. But fair or not, Ashcroft is always going to be linked with opuses like “Bitter Sweet Symphony” and “Lucky Man.” This doesn’t mean that Natural Rebel is bad, it just means the bar to clear is higher than it would be for other artists.
Fair or not, that’s how music works. On Natural Rebel, Ashcroft’s vocals aren’t as blissed out as on some of the Verve albums and it makes for a nice change of pace. Instead of an ironic detachment, there’s more there, there.
Although the songs on Natural Rebel lean alternative, there’s also a generous helping of country twang to balance things out. Songs like the weary “Surprised by the Joy” demonstrate how jaded Ashcroft is getting with other people.
As the album moves on, you can hear Ashcroft settling into a groove. He is a masterful lyricist (although he annoyingly refuses to release the lyrics). His catchy “Born to Be Strangers” has some bravado that feels well-earned. Breaking away from introspection is a great change of approach, and it does wonders here. The song’s start-stop beat and fun guitar solo help undercut the bleakness of his lyrics.
“That’s When I Feel It” is perhaps the most Verve-like song on the album, with an upbeat tempo and some backing chorus vocals. It’s a hymnal to music itself, and a great one at that. When Ashcroft sings “I’ve been everywhere, girl / Searching for my answers,” you have to believe him.
Ashcroft walks a fine line on Natural Rebel. His voice will always be unmistakable, and with that voice comes a lot of history, good and bad. What’s amazing is how confident his music is.
While other solo acts have gone out of their way to distance themselves from their musical pasts (Jack White’s last album was basically a country album and who knows what Liam Gallagher is doing), Ashcroft’s solo work fits comfortably next to the Verve’s without being a cheap knockoff or more of the same. It’s a balancing act, and not an easy one to pull off. Most of this album could be perfectly at home with the Verve’s back catalog. Considering how influential the Verve was, that’s pretty good company.
Is Natural Rebel a success? We think so. It’s an album that acknowledges the past without succumbing to it.