Lennon/McCartney, Morrissey/Marr and, yes, even Ashcroft/McCabe belong in a discussion of great English songwriting pairs. These pairs gave us some of the most memorable songs of our lives. But each songwriters' solo work, by and large, never quite made the same impact as, for example, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "How Soon is Now?" and "Bittersweet Symphony." Sometimes, it seems, you need someone to tell you something is crap. The few great songs on Alone with Everybody (2000) and Human Conditions (2002), the two previous solo albums from Richard Ashcroft, former frontman of the Verve, were weighted down by many that were not so great (see Morrissey's back catalog). Likewise, Keys to the World is just another hit-or-miss affair.
Ashcroft relies less on layers of synthesised strings, vocal overdubs and general noodling on Keys to the World, and the stripped-down production gives the record a rawer, brighter sound, like his other solo offerings. But it is his voice that carries the record. As always, Ashcroft is captivating and expressive-the man can sing. Whether he is invoking the old ghosts of country and folk on "Words Just Get in the Way" (the fraternal twin to Alone With Everybody's "You on My Mind in My Sleep") or letting the rock 'n' roll bug bite him on "Why Not Nothing?" Ashcroft's strength is his emotional singing. It isn't cloying or contrived; it's the voice of a man getting things off his chest. Like his work with the Verve, Ashcroft (when he's not getting all metaphysical and mystic on us) can articulate what it feels like to be alive today, speaking for everyone without being a spokesman.
"Cry 'Til the morning" is more piano, more tension; it's the closest he gets on this record to his Urban Hymns days, and it proves he's still got those kinds of songs hiding in him. It's when he goes off on musical tangents and uses soul hooks and hip-hop programs, as he does on "Keys to the World," that he falters. I'd like to admire his genre-bending, but the just song doesn't work as well as those that lean toward a rock/country/folk blend. He should leave the sample- and beat-driven tracks to Massive Attack or James Lavelle. Furthermore, as much as he may believe it, a track with such a lofty title as "Music is Power" isn't all that empowering or convincing, though the clunky beats and strings stabs do invoke Marvin Gaye, even if he is cringing a bit. Keys to the World does have a few great moments, but it's not the definitive solo record he's been promising.
Parlophone Records Web site