Last month, the Stone Roses’s self-titled magnum opus celebrated its 20th anniversary; it was a categorically timeless LP that changed the shape of British music, providing a rough outline for Oasis and the oodles of concurrent Britpop acts that dominated her majesty’s charts and airwaves for the majority of the 1990s. Ian Brown has had the unenviable task of forging his reputation as a solo artist from the ashes of that seminal Mancunian outfit, shaking off torrential criticism for his pedestrian vocals and snubbing the incessant calls for a Stone Roses reunion. His career, then, has been an exercise in dogged determination: Anyone who has charted Brown’s musical progress over his last five studio albums can attest to his ever-increasing ambition and his refusal to compromise on the grandiose concepts that have blessed his more inspired work. He stubbornly christens his sixth effort, My Way, and confirms his intent to stick with his tried, tested, and critically ostracized blueprint.
The album is a testament to his unyielding ambition, borrowing brass arrangements that belong in Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti-western scores and fusing them with his own brand of electronic psychedelica. These elements coalesce wonderfully on album opener and lead single “Stellify,” sauntering along with a hollow piano melody over a deep bass thud until a platoon of horns provide a toe-tapping rescue from routine synth tedium. Again, in the Zager & Evans cover “The Year 2525,” which chronicles a nightmarish prophecy in which mankind is made redundant after centuries of its own technological advancement, Brown’s sermon is boosted by mariachi horns and Spanish guitar, culminating in a majestic key change as this disquieting hallucination reaches judgment day: “In the year 7510/If God’s a-coming, oughta made it by then.” If 2004’s Solarized gave an indication of his penchant for ornate brass assemblies, then the brave synergies of My Way show just how far Brown is willing to ferry this formula.
It comes as no coincidence, though, that the only lyrically engaging track to be found on My Way is indeed a cover. Brown’s libretto has often bordered on insipid, but his limp rhyming couplets and general lack of imagination are painfully evident here: “I made a shrine, I made it for you/I see you are an angel, all the things that you do.” Unfortunately, it gets worse—far worse. “Own Brain,” the title of which is an anagram of Ian Brown, sees any dissection of the album’s lyrical merit descend into farce. Brown boasts, “I got my own brain/An anagram of my own name,” perhaps in a futile attempt at profundity, but should instead prompt his addressees to question whether they’re listening to the same Ian Brown that penned such enduring paradigms some 20 years ago.
It should be made clear that Brown’s exploits since the acrimonious Stone Roses split have been praised for their sonic prowess rather than their wordplay, and My Way is no different. “Just Like You” is undoubtedly the most audacious track here, a sonorous synthesizer hook imparted with the greatest of poise and finished with those mariachi horns for what seems like the record’s umpteenth time. The pomp and swagger of this baggy-disco thumper provide the perfect vessel for Brown’s arrogant if technically sub-par vocals, delivering every monotone line with the same pride and bluster that he declared, “I am the resurrection.”
From there, though, the album begins to tread water in a lackluster second act that fails to sustain the momentum that the aforementioned tracks set, suffering from a lack of vision and a serious melodic drought. Beyond pseudo-U2 ballad “Always Remember Me,” it’s impossible to find any redeeming features in My Way‘s latter half—a collection of tunes that belong on a cutting room floor, all of which lamely amble along to a dreadfully undercooked curtain call.
Just as you would expect from the ex-Stone Roses frontman, Brown’s sixth solo LP marks more significant progress in his skills as an arranger and beatmaker while underlining his boundaries as a singer and lyricist. My Way exists as a triumph of self-belief, displaying all the stubborn ambition that has kept Brown afloat since John Squire swapped his guitar for watercolors. Alas, these qualities aren’t quite enough to make a truly great record. For all its lofty goals and risky production decisions, the album runs out of steam with such sudden regression that it becomes impossible to advocate Brown’s “way.”