There was a time when Richard Ashcroft was the poster boy for disaffected, brooding hipsters with a penchant for effects-drenched rock. As frontman for the spacey Brit-pop act the Verve, he helped turn moody musical indulgences into an art, crooning over lush, gray-skied shoe-gazer symphonies about his failings with drugs and relationships, finding a following in folks who liked their sonic psychedelics shipped in from Britain.
After four years cultivating an underground fan base, the Verve hit the mainstream in 1997 with "Urban Hymns" (and its international hit, "Bitter Sweet Symphony"). British rock was huge, and the Verve and such peers as Radiohead and Oasis were packing concert halls around the world. It was cool to be a lanky balladeer, swooning under the weight of your own pretensions and a heavy dose of grandiose instrumental theatrics.
But the Verve never had it easy, even at its peak. After dealing with illnesses and infighting, the band's members called it quits in 1999. Since then, some have gone on to new projects -- the bassist and guitarist becoming the Shining, which will release its debut this year, and Ashcroft working out a solo career.
"Human Conditions" is the singer's sophomore release, a follow-up to 2000's "Alone With Everybody." But if you liked the Verve, there's unfortunately no guarantee you'll like Ashcroft in this pure state.
"Human Conditions" sounds like Verve lite -- with "lite" meaning everything that made the Verve so fantastic is stripped away, from the swelling instrumental tricks and grand soundscapes to the kick-down-the-door rock epics. What's left are Ashcroft's signature shimmering vocals (still in excellent form) and rock symphonies that have more in common with mild adult contemporary artists than the newest generation of post-Verve acts (Coldplay, Travis). From the tepid opener, "Check the Meaning," through the uninspired "The Miracle," the album tiptoes along, the tempos inconspicuously slow and the songwriting stalled in tranquil lullabies.
Rumor has it that Ashcroft has mellowed in his personal life, so maybe his calm interior lends itself to the all-too-stable exterior of his music. Whereas the Verve made every emotion sound larger than life, noisily working through band members' personal issues like tortured artists in a defiant therapy session, Ashcroft's emotions feel inconsequential, his sentiments leaving little impact when the songs reach their finales. "Lord I've Been Trying" is one of the few standouts, with a backing chorus helping to boost his pretty-boy blues a little, as the string section that accents much of the album carries the instrumentals. "Paradise" builds up to a refrain that sounds hauntingly close to "Bitter Sweet Symphony" in places, a glimmer of a once-great musical past.
But elsewhere, Ashcroft feels deflated, as though the air that made the Verve sound so beautifully bloated has been replaced with some sort of comfortable numbness. The fire and madness that colored his old band has faded, having been replaced with a beige reinvention of Ashcroft's former magic. Where the Verve commanded your attention, "Human Conditions" merely asks for a passing listen, a request that becomes more difficult to grant the longer the album drones on.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8161.)