Since the high profile reunion of The Stone Roses in 2011, it’s been all too easy to forget how long it’s been since Ian Brown’s last solo album. Nearly ten years on from 2009’s My Way, 2019 finds the Manchester icon a further decade into his life and career. New LP Ripples is both familiar and sometimes surprising.
When Brown reconvened with his old bandmates earlier this decade, fans old and new greeted their massive comeback gigs with jubilation. To add to the excitement, the group were talking about new material, leading many to believe that there could soon be the third album from one of British music’s most celebrated bands. Even two underwhelming comeback singles didn’t put people off wanting a new Stone Roses LP. Instead, the band ended their 2016 run of shows by leaving the world unsure whether they had just split up or not. The silence was followed by rumours, which were followed by more silence, followed by debate over whether The Stone Roses should be left in the past.
Putting things further into perspective, a growing number of people would’ve actually made been more happy with a new Ian Brown record instead of disappointing attempts to revisit the past. They get their wish granted with the release of Ripples, a record with King Monkey’s spirit (and infamous ego) stamped all over it. In fact, it makes a point of being the work of Ian Brown the man and musician, as opposed to a mere substitute for a comeback LP from him, John Squire, Mani and Reni.
He’s keen to show people that he can do it all himself, playing the majority of instruments on Ripples, self-producing the record, and helped only with the songwriting by his three sons. It’s the closest he could get to cloning himself. Or perhaps he’s thinking about carrying on the legacy… Is he just eager to build on his strong solo career? Perhaps he’s been itching to push himself and rely less on others for a while. Or maybe something DID go awry with the attempts to make new music with the Roses, and creative differences led to Brown feeling the burning urge to prove someone else wrong. Now, something of an enigma in the world of music, the 54-year-old rarely speaks to the press these days. And with the world no wiser on the current status of the influential band that made him a hero, it’s natural that some of us are going to be looking for clues in amongst these new tracks after all Brown has never been one to avoid a lyrical dig or two. But if anything, the material here throws up more questions than answers.
Opener First World Problems is hardly original, another distant relative of Sympathy For The Devil that treads the same ground as Primal Scream’s Loaded. Yet its insistently funky keys and unusual instrumentation lend it a refreshing vibrancy, and a sense of doing things very much his own way, even when the music does heavily echo elements of other songs. Originally recorded by dancehall great Barrington Levy, Black Roses is one of two cover versions and works fairly well as rattling post-punk rock number, not outstaying its welcome. Breathe And Breathe Easy offers hard, acoustic strums, and a melody not unlike Liam Gallagher solo material, but does come across as slightly underdeveloped and a tad monotonous after a while.
In a completely different league is the clear highlight The Dream And The Dreamer, where smart disco flavours and tidy licks embellish a contagious rooted groove. There’s even some Fool’s Gold-style percussion towards the end. The downtempo From Chaos To Harmony is inventive in its minimal backing, but sounds more like a section from a longer track rather than a standalone track, with the vocals becoming too prominent by this point in the record. Sharp ears will notice what could either be oblique references to the Stone Roses reunion, or false clues to throw listeners off the scent: “dried up roses all turn to stone… thinking for myself with my own brain“.
The relaxed musical backdrop of It’s Raining Diamonds would’ve benefitted from a more delicate, hushed vocal than the one Brown delivers here. Again, those who don’t regard his voice as his strong point probably won’t welcome the fact that on Ripples, those vocals are always high in the mix and plentiful. Even some of those critics may find it hard to deny the quality of the awesome title track, another career highlight that provides a fat helping of rump-shaking monkey funk, buoyed by a tasty bassline as his vocal dances casually and effortlessly around it. Topped with snaking Eastern-shaped guitar lines, it completely outclasses both those Stone Roses comeback singles by a long distance and makes you wonder if any of these songs were ever tried out or intended for that elusive third album.
Coloured by bluesy, mellow organs, the sparse, sneaking Blue Sky Day drifts along nicely, bringing to mind some sort of bridge between Second Coming and solo debut Unfinished Monkey Business. The arrival of metronomic beats moves it more towards the electronic territory of 1999’s Golden Greats and Music Of The Spheres from 2001. The almost self-parodic lyrical cliches don’t do too much damage to the slow-burning Soul Satisfaction, which again brings to the fore intriguing keys and has a looseness to it that will either appeal after a few listens or immediately grate on the ears. A bizarre Mancunian-meets-Rasta accent emerges on the closing cover of Mikey Dread’s classic Break Down The Walls, a song which Brown somehow manages to make sound more repetitive than ever after a few minutes. It’s worth sticking with for the very odd vocal impression of a trombone but comes across as more of a hidden track than a weighty closing statement.
It’s a flawed, familiar, occasionally strange record that has Ian Brown’s flaws, familiarity and occasional strangeness all over it. It’s not an album for those who can only take his vocals in small doses, and it’s not quite up there with his best records. But the weaker moments don’t hinder it too much when the highlights are as brilliant as they are. Good to have him back.