It's nearly impossible to believe now, but there was a time when the music this man made felt urgent, necessary even. As front man of beleaguered British stargazers the Verve, singer/cheekbone-booster Richard Ashcroft piloted the group to musical I-won't-say-riches that made more ephemeral baubles by Blur and Suede seem like accompaniment to expensive nights out at London's Met Bar; the gorgeous singles from Urban Hymns, the band's 1997 swan song--"The Drugs Don't Work," "Lucky Man," the deathless "Bitter Sweet Symphony"--actually made a case for rock bands doing the gospel thing, searching for redemption through a haze of mournful string charts and electric-guitar filigree.
But on his arrogant 2000 solo debut, Alone With Everybody, Ashcroft zapped his material of that vitality, drowning in a sinkhole of rock-poet pretension, lethargic tempos and his own self-aggrandizing moan. With its plodding follow-up, Human Conditions, he simply slips further down the spiral, stuck in a distended adult-rock moment he can't get out of. "Bright Lights" is a half-digested regurgitation of the Black Crowes' "Jealous Again" with none of that band's shabby joie de vivre; what's worse, an overdubbed bongo drum taps mercilessly throughout the song, so high in the mix it serves as a cheap sonic token of Ashcroft's spiritual investment in his music. He makes that mistake a lot, assuming that fussy arrangements can stand in for weak songwriting--on the preposterous "Nature Is the Law" Brian Wilson even steps in to add a layer of vain, ineffectual ooohs to a vain, ineffectual chorus.
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Human Conditions isn't entirely without its pleasures. Ashcroft is actually at his best here when he shoots for the bruised AM-radio grandeur of prime Glen Campbell and Bobbie Gentry; "Buy It in Bottles," a genuinely sad-eyed lament on the topic he's always returning to, earns its wah-wah guitar and harmony vocal line. But the song's just a glint of meaning in a swamp of idle gestures. The drugs, as it turns out, really don't work.