The solo career of Richard Ashcroft can be divided into two halves: The warm, mostly acoustic-flavoured output of the post-Urban Hymns years, and the transitional sounds of the records he has released since The Verve reformed in 2007 and split for the third time.
Listeners will be pleased to know that while the sound of The Verve's more traditional output is echoed throughout his fifth solo album, Ashcroft is also branching into new territories. This doesn't mean welding hip-hop beats and electronics to some middle of the road rock songs, as he did on 2009's hugely divisive experiment RPA and the United Nations Of Sound. Instead, guitar music is very much the order of the day on Natural Rebel. It's a return to a more organic approach to instrumentation, while it's the songs themselves that represent a progression, reflecting new influences and a sincere maturity. While 2015's These People saw the 47-year-old continuing to pepper songs with unexpected production that sometimes distracted from the melodies, his latest offering finds him moving back towards the style of his earlier solo work, bolstered by songwriting that takes cues from sources unexplored by Ashcroft in the past.
The flavour of The Travelling Wilburys is one that can be detected throughout the glowing opener All My Dreams, an immediate foot tapper with an infectiously positive outlook on life, where the vocals display a regained confidence. On the wondrous Birds Fly, laid back pedal steel combines with smart strings on top of one of Ashcroft's most memorable melodies in years, a track full of stirring arrangements and uplifting beauty, before the sunlit grower Surprised By The Joy cruises along nicely, Ashcroft sounding like he's genuinely having fun again making music and thankful for being blessed with the life he has. Music is a drug for this man, and right now it's a drug that clearly DOES work. It's an aptly titled moment too, as many will indeed be "Surprised by the joy of this" throughout much of Natural Rebel. Growing into a gospel flavoured country rocker, lyrically it's the perfect encapsulation of Ashcroft at this current moment, saying "Hello to the world again" and happy to still be standing having been through something of a transitional and challenging period in his career.
The warming ballad That's How Strong recalls his solo debut Alone With Everybody, radiating an introspective warmth and bearing a hint of Lennon in the vocals, soaring high while the quality of the songwriting shows an artist back on form. Another highlight comes with the steady strut of Born To Be Strangers where soul and attitude are delivered in equal doses as its snappy rhythm frames a cool, biting funk riff. That's When I Feel It thrives on positive vibes, his voice sounding more vital than it has in years, with its talk of "music in motion, love and devotion" summing up the outlook nicely. Like much of Natural Rebel, its an example of back to basics magic, not unlike Urban Hymns with an added twist of George Harrison and Tom Petty.
Atmospheric, grand and melancholic moods compliment Ashcroft's ability to relate to human emotion on the lovely We All Bleed, while the equally A Man In Motion again dances with the ghost of Harrison and presents us with another fantastic chorus. A touch of magic has clearly been rediscovered here. Elsewhere, Streets Of Amsterdam resonates with a mysterious, reflective elegance while offering one of the record's most affecting musical arrangements. The LPs fiercest moment is saved for last, as the driving Money Money brings this enjoyable ride to a close in a fashion that brings to mind 'Gimme Shelter' with an added bite recalling early Oasis.
Those who have kept the faith are rewarded here with one of Ashcroft's most essential solo albums, a record that has much to offer for those with an ear for finely crafted guitar music. Middle of the road much of it may be, but it's a musical zone where Richard Ashcroft thrives on doing what comes naturally. A return to form that has been due for a while.