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Richard Ashcroft
Astoria, London
Yahoo Music (September 2002)

He’s a curious beast, the Sensitive Lad. From a distance he’s indistinguishable from your regular lad, all bravado and cheap lager, still dressed in the white shirt he wears in the office. But give him a soul searching anthem and he’s bellowing for the skies, hand on his heart, beer can aloft, tiny tear in his eye. He came into being when Weller swallowed the first bitter pill of rejection, and found his place in the high street with Oasis. But in this era of poncy Strokes and bloody nu-metal, he’s lost, looking for direction.

Cue Richard Ashcroft, the patron saint of Sensitive Lad. He understands what it is to struggle with notions of masculinity and sensitivity. He knows that sometimes you’re so in touch with your inner feelings that you can’t spare the time to walk around someone in the street. He is, as the girls in front of me insist on squealing all night, a Real Man. And somehow watching him be a Real Man gives the Sensitive Lad carte blanche to be even laddier: to play fight amongst themselves, front up to other blokes, hassle the single girls.

Thing is, Richard Ashcroft is in transition. He’s becoming a Sensitive Man. This means a certain sophistication is required, a particular polish and style. It also means a man playing a saxophone, making the songs sound like they’re being beamed straight from the movie “Breaking Glass”. There’s even a different dress code. Ashcroft appears in a white jacket and shades, like he’s just back from a weekend’s ski-ing. But oddly in his jet set garb, he looks smaller than remembered, like he’s shrunk with success.

When he takes the jacket off, the old, Sensitive Lad, Ashcroft returns. And when he steps away from the rousing synth strings and saxophone of his 21st century band and faces the world with his acoustic guitar, he grows in stature. So he breaks a string halfway through “Drugs Don’t Work”. He smiles, gets a new guitar, then carries right on to the rousing, exhilarating climax. So has trouble with his strap then appears to lose his place on “History”. It doesn’t matter. It’s just him and us. Nothing to get in the way.

There’s nothing wrong with the new songs. “Science Of Silence” is Ashcroft back to his planet gazing best, one man at the brow of the ship, eyes fixed over the horizon. “Lord I’ve Been Trying” and “Bright Lights” sound oddly like they were written with Jason Pierce in mind, almost as if Ashcroft wanted to show that he could bleed white light from his soul as well. But, “Lord…” aside, it’s hard to imagine just Ashcroft and his guitar fucking these songs up and then saving them like a real, flesh and blood, living, breathing, unpredictable hero.

The point, perhaps, is that we know where these songs are going. They start in a familiar place and then rise, though a series of pleasurable yet familiar twists and turns, to a familiar climax. That makes them a comfortable, cheering, cosy pleasure. But surely the point of Richard Ashcroft, Sensitive Lad on permanent walkabout, is that he takes us to somewhere unexpected? You can hear it on the glorious reinvention of “New York”, where the “Breaking Glass” sax suddenly starts honking several shades of free jazz magnificence. And you can’t hear it on “Song For The Lovers”, a straight line to nowhere.

The second album is better than the first, that much is certain. He’s back on track again, willing to put himself in the songs rather than stand at the back of the room and observe, coldly. And Richard Ashcroft live is still mesmerising and inspirational. You just wish he’d cut loose a little more often, soar rather than plod, follow the train of thought that led him to cut out the sample in “Bitter Sweet Symphony” and replace it with a first bland and disappointing but then spectacular sax part. That he’d surprise, baffle, amaze.

And afterwards, in the busy Tottenham Court Road area, reports that there were several traffic accidents involving Sensitive Lads walking in a straight line, no matter what, are yet to be confirmed.

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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