In the latter ‘90s, Richard Ashcroft helped lead a resurgent British Invasion among alternative rock fans. Radiohead, Blur and Spiritualized all released landmark albums in 1997 alongside Ashcroft’s band The Verve. As “Urban Hymns” turns 20, Ashcroft is returning to Chicago for the first time in more than a decade. He’ll perform at the House of Blues in support of “These People,” his fifth solo album.
“These People” arrived to acclaim in England last May, but the material feels relevant and fresh as Ashcroft prepares to introduce the album to North America. Singles including “Hold On” describe navigating turmoil, whether the tempest is personal or raging on the street outside.
“It could well be the soundtrack to things that are going on in the world now,” says Ashcroft. “It was something I could feel building as I was writing. Sometimes, you’re before your time with ideas, and you have to accept that you can’t know. If you start shaping everything you do trying to be in step with whatever is going on in the world, you’re often out of step by the time people hear it. It’s a bit like fashion.”
The forward-thinking “Out of My Body” shows Ashcroft’s exploration of both classic and modern sounds, incorporating rock, looping, house music, Johnny Cash-styled folk, orchestral sweep, hip hop and EDM rhythms.
Other new songs connect to the haunted melancholy of sweeping Verve ballads like “The Drugs Don’t Work.” “Black Lines” leans upon the organic sounds of acoustic guitar, lush orchestration by “Urban Hymns” collaborator Wil Malone, and Ashcroft’s emotive vocal. The song encourages perseverance through hard times, even when it seems they won’t get better.
“I lost a good friend a few years ago, and it happened quite suddenly,” says Ashcroft. “Any event like that leaves you with questions. Would a phone call have made a difference? Did the person know that you were there for them? I’ve been through those dark hours myself, but I’ve also had that sense of rebirth and come out of it. I know that hope can exist if I can just see through those hours.”
In honor of its anniversary, Ashcroft’s recent performances have also included many songs from “Urban Hymns.” Powerful singles including international smash “Bitter Sweet Symphony” made an enduring connection with a broad audience. Ashcroft expresses gratitude for sharing in a legacy attained by only the most special songs.
“It’s fairly pleasant to know that amongst all the disposable things and the speed that music is devoured, [“Bitter Sweet Symphony” is] still there,” says Ashcroft. “I don’t know when the last song was that was a massive, enjoyable hit in its time that you can still stand to hear. ‘Hey Ya’ or something. A lot of big ones still give you a pure sugar hit, but you don’t quite get that feeling again. Whereas when something like ‘Tracks of My Tears’ comes on the radio, there’s something about that spine-tingling moment when Smokey starts singing that’s never going away.”
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.