Richard Ashcroft is known for a lot of things: fronting The Verve, writing some of the most unifying, lighters-aloft anthems of the 90s, hanging out with Oasis (who wrote Cast No Shadow about him), pinching samples from The Rolling Stones and, well, being a bit mad. He did, remember, once tell a journalist, in all seriousness, that he could fly.
What he's not known for, though, is operating outside of his stylistic comfort zone. His latest project The United Nations of Sound, however, is certainly... different. Recruiting the formidable talents of revered session players Steve Wyreman (guitar) Paul DW Wright (bass) and drummer Derrick Wright, Ashcroft then decided to call up a producer whose recent work he admired - so far, so normal. But that man happened to be No ID, a hip hop/RnB aficionado dubbed "the Godfather of Chicago hip hop".
The result of this unlikely collaboration is 12 tracks that will probably shock hardcore Verve fans - half of them almost certainly will. It sounds like the most collaborative thing the singer has done in years: Wyreman's freewheeling, frequent solos (the first two tracks, Are You Ready and Born Again, both end in a hail of fretwork) often prove as bombastic as the vocal, but it's No ID's involvement - as you might expect - that yields the seachange.
Three tracks in - is that a hip hop beat? Yes, it is. Does it suit the voice of a man born in Wigan? Oddly enough, yes it does. This Thing Called Life even has him rapping over a full-on, banging RnB backdrop, supported by a choir. It should all be utterly preposterous, but the unshakeable self-belief on display, and the accomplished beats No ID lays down, ensures Ashcroft somehow gets away with it.
Not always, though: elsewhere, what sounds like a Barry White impersonation on Life Can Be So Beautiful is faintly embarrassing, whilst How Deep Is Your Man borrows so obviously from Chuck Berry's No Particular Place to Go that even the deeply risible title can't save it. The album's second major piece of plagiarism comes on Royal Highness: the chord progression from The Velvet Underground's Sweet Jane is lifted wholesale.
It might not always succeed in its style-swapping, but The United Nations of Sound is certainly as bold a record as Ashcroft's ever made. If you thought he was incapable of making non-Verve music, it's time to think again.