Reviewers love harping on about how “soulful” Richard Ashcroft is; the ex-Verve frontman has been compared to everyone from Al Green to D’Angelo to (brace yourself) Isaac Hayes. Ashcroft himself has played up this angle for a while now, constantly chatting up the soul music he’s fond of, even having the gumption to call the second Verve album Northern Soul. But Ashcroft’s music, both in the Verve and on his new solo outing, Alone With Everybody, is essentially overwrought English folk-rock with prog leanings. Now and again, as on 1998’s “Bittersweet Symphony” (the MTV hit with the pretty violins and petty violence), it’s elevated to a sweeping romanticism that reeks of the Moody Blues at both their most wistful (“Tuesday Afternoon”) and their most overblown (“Nights in White Satin,” the bitter-sweetest pill I ever swallowed as a kid with my ear perched to the radio). There isn’t a whiter shade of paleface in the world of Brit-pop. First time I heard the guy, I swear I thought he was Bret Michaels or Steve Earle!
So “A Song for the Lovers,” the leadoff single from Alone With Everybody, is no minor miracle; it’s the first Ashcroft song you might call “fun”—or anyway, buoyant. Over a road-weary hotel-room lament, Ashcroft piles on one excess after another: Sergio Leone spaghetti-isms, Tijuana brass bits, feisty strings, a gloriously indulgent wah-wah pedal. Toward the end, he does some ad-libbing: “In the midnight hour/in the midnight hour.” He’s haunted by Wilson Pickett, but he rocks the cradle of love like Billy Idol.