Richard Ashcroft ups his game in Natural Rebel.

Natural Rebel is the fifth solo album from Richard Ashcroft (excluding ‘RPA & The United Nations of Sound’ in 2011) and the second to be released under his own label. In recent interviews, the forty-six-year-old has not been shy in demonstrating the satisfaction he holds for his latest work; claiming it, in a Q&A session with Radio X, to be his "strongest set of songs to date", his "favourite sounds distilled" and one put together specifically with his fans in mind. In evaluating the common ground of his previous releases, from Alone from Everybody (2000) to These People (2016), it may seem fair to claim that he is one of a few who actually succeeds in projecting a form of self-assured sadness; almost as if to invite you in, but only for a third of the way beyond the sharp exterior. One could even argue that this comes somewhat near to explaining where the latter slightly falls short, in simply having too much to say and not enough raw variety to be able to truly make up for lost time and answer those eternally criticising the alleged flatness of his repertoire. Needless to say, his latest offering makes it difficult to deconstruct him on these bases. To begin with, there is a clear element of self-consciousness in how the album is structured. The run from the characteristic acoustic strumming on ‘All My Dreams’ to ‘That’s How Strong’, the latter of which comes directly from Urban Hymes’ ballpark, leads the audience into a zone of familiar middle-road-ness, but only so that he can then take everyone by surprise through the electric drum loop introducing ‘Born To Be Strangers’; almost as if to set the scene to slap the idea of passive listening in the face. This variety is also extended to ‘We All Bleed’, the headline ballad, which courtesy of the ever-blooming chamber string section complimenting his lamenting utterances, represents the most tender and luscious addition. The only slight disaffection one can have with this track is that it is, if not by striking coincidence, a carbon copy of Lana Del Rey’s ‘Video Games’ with ‘Comfortably Numb’ thrown into the same melting pot. Then again, however, as with his most ardent critic, a disinterest in the ethics of plagiarism still ironically constitutes a considerable part of his authentic presence (‘Bittersweet Symphony’ in particular), as ironic as this sounds. Furthermore, the chorus which reads: "(Thinking) about the clouds, beneath the wings, born to fly, I’m here to sing, now wear your heart on your sleeve, it’s okay because we all bleed" reveals something which remains constant amongst the wandering ambience; an intention to refrain from the alienation of meaning through pretension for the sole purpose of encapsulating an honest reflection of a world on fire in front of the naked eye. Granted, there are tendencies for this album to drift into more dreary territory through the continuous rhythmic emphasis on the first and third beats of the bar and, with that, the ubiquity of the downbeating acoustic guitar which, as with most work from Richard Ashcroft, it feels perpetually channelled towards the use of open chords. ‘Streets of Amsterdam’ perhaps best displays this slightly tiring combination but then again, with a clear contextual focus on mourning the loss of simpler times, it could also be interpreted as the perfect emulation of a craving for desolation. But even if it could be confirmed that Richard Ashcroft does sink back into his comfort zone from time to time, he can be more than forgiven for it with his cocksure closer ‘Money Money’, which leaves a fittingly edgy aftertaste through using the sneering youth of The Undertones in their early days and the unmistakable rock’n’roll attitude of The Rolling Stones in ‘Gimme Shelter’ to express the hysteria precipitated by surplus value. What has been produced is an album that lives up to its name by an artist who has lived up to his reputation. The spirit of post-Britpop has been given a new lease of life.