Acoustic Hymns Vol. 1 by Richard Ashcroft – Album Review
By David Schuster
Acoustic Hymns Vol. 1 is a brave album. After all, in the case of the tracks from The Verve’s Urban Hymns, these are tunes that have been ubiquitous across the media for more than twenty years. Richard Ashcroft is indisputably a musical legend, and as a result his songs have made their way into our musical psyche, so to re-imagine them is bound to divide opinion.
The release is bookended by Ashcroft’s greatest hits, opening with ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ and ‘A Song for the Lovers’ and ending with ‘Break the Night with Colour’ and, of course, ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’. The opener has always had beautiful swelling strings, now further augmented by a plucked banjo that works really well, having overtones of The Eagles’ version of ‘Journey of the Sorcerer’. This is the secret of a good cover version; retaining the essence of what made it a hit, but giving it new life and added dimensions.
This is especially true of ‘A Song for the Lovers’, by far the best track on the album, where the symphonic feel of the original has been taken in a completely new direction. The use of a sparkling trumpet immediately transports you into the world of a spaghetti western; dusty wind-blown streets, dim cantinas and the ever-present sense of imminent violence. This is epic taken to a new level.
The bar then is set very high and inevitably, the middle third of the record just can’t quite maintain that level. ‘Weeping Willow’ and ‘Lucky Man’ feel somewhat underserved by acoustic versions too similar, but not quite as good, as the template from which they are taken. Disappointingly, this is especially true of ‘This Thing Called Life’. Despite being a complete re-working of the RPA & The United Nations Of Sound project version, this ostensibly sounds exactly the same, albeit fantastic. By contrast ‘Break the Night with Colour’ benefits from a more restrained and sparse production than the original, allowing the beauty of the tune and vocals to really shine.
Another of the pleasures of this release is that we get a little more insight into the background to some of the tracks. For example, we learn that ‘C’mon People (We’re Making it Now)’ features Liam Gallagher as he’s liked the song ever since Richard played it to him on a piano somewhere in Majorca, back in 1998. It’s also good to see that this new take on ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ was the catalyst for the conversation that led to the resolution of the legal wrangling with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards over writing credits, a dispute that had nothing to do with the wishes of the artists and everything to do with record company greed.
The album closes as strongly as it opens; ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ has been pared right back, all the orchestration is there, and exceptional it is too, with string arrangements which were recorded at Abbey Road Studios. However, it’s toned down such that the predominant elements are the vocals and piano. It’s an effective lightness of touch that provides a feeling that you’re witnessing a private rehearsal.
Acoustic Hymns Vol. 1 is Ashcroft’s career glimpsed through a window into a parallel universe; similar in some ways, different in others, but still exceptional. That begs the question of who will buy it? It’s not different enough to attract a new audience and not exactly a ‘best of’ compilation. As such, it’s most likely to please his legions of already devoted fans, and that’s a good enough reason to have produced it.