Since the breakup of The Verve in 1999, Richard Ashcroft has been overlooked in America, despite releasing two well-received solo albums. Last year Ashcroft got a major boost when he was invited onstage at Live 8 by Chris Martin, who called Ashcroft “the best singer in the world,” and their performance of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was one of the highlights of the entire event. It seems that if ever there were a time for Ashcroft to make a breakthrough on this side of the Atlantic, it would be now. Whether Ashcroft will earn a larger audience is questionable, but his latest release, Keys to the World, is his best solo effort to date, adding punchy melodies to the insightful lyrics and strong vocals that are characteristic of his music.
Keys to the World is more upbeat than Ashcroft’s two previous, quieter albums, a fact that comes across immediately in “Why Not Nothing?,” which features lively horns and percussion and tackles the issue of whether there really is a higher power. It’s heavy subject matter for a catchy pop song, but Ashcroft has proven adept at mixing melody and message. The title track finds Ashcroft musing about ambition and opportunity, over a loop of a haunting female voice wailing in the background, while “Music Is Power” has a fun, energetic groove based on a Curtis Mayfield sample that allows it to transcend its mediocre lyrics.
Ashcroft recruited the London Metropolitan Orchestra to play on several tracks, and they add a nice touch to the folky ballad “Sweet Brother Malcolm,” though the numerous string arrangements can be overkill at times, especially on “Why Do Lovers,” which would be sappy enough on its own but, with the strings, borders on bombastic. A couple other songs seem a bit dated—“Break The Night With Colour” sounds like it should have appeared on a late-‘90s Robbie Williams album—but those are few and far between. For the most part, Keys to the World is a definite step forward and demonstrates that Ashcroft is finally hitting his stride as a solo artist.