“The one thing I do on every album is try and make it contemporary, like it could only have been made this year,” Ian Brown once said in an interview. That was during the promotional cycle for the former Stone Roses frontman’s sixth solo album, ‘My Way’. Like its predecessor ‘The World Is Yours’, it had a handful of modern, catchy R&B-inflected tracks. Perhaps Brown’s outlook has changed in the years since, because his new album is a collection of maddeningly repetitive, retro-inflected songs.
Brown wastes no time getting to this point with the album’s opening track, ‘First World Problems’. This pound shop ‘Freedom’, with clavinet-style keys, baggy drums and clumsy guitar solos, loops the same melody for a whole five minutes while Brown berates the workforce’s moans about “the daily grind”. This, of course, is something he’s been fortunate enough to avoid for decades. The single also hears Brown plant the first of many vague conspiracy theories – “All is a distraction by design” – which is truly the record’s only unifying ingredient.
“It’s all a fix / It’s all pretend / The government is not your friend”, Brown sings later on rhumba ditty ‘The Dream And The Dreamer’. Letting “music be the healer”, he circles the same, stagnant Latino guitar melody and bassline for – yep – another five minutes. The irony is that it feels like the brainwashing that Brown’s didactics so warn against.
At least ‘Blue Sky Day’, the latest song to borrow from the bluesy descent of Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’, pays some heed to Brown’s contemporaneous objectives. This downtempo anthem for the environment hears Brown despair at modern humanity’s disregard for the planet (“Jet planes making chemtrails… Street graffiti not allowed / But vandalise stratospheric skies”). Chemtrails may revive the record’s conspiracy-addled conscience but at least Brown addresses scientifically sound ideas elsewhere in the song.
The 55-year-old’s singing has noticeably improved. On the acoustic busker tune ‘Breathe And Breathe Easy’, his voice sound stronger than ever: a steely Mancunian bellow that also harks to Lennon’s vocal runs.
It’s hard to heap more praise on this record. Even Brown’s reggae and dancehall covers – a turbo-charged version of Barrington Levy’s ‘Black Roses’ and a vocally flat rendition of Mikey Dread’s ‘Break Down The Wall’ – are scant cause for celebration. ‘Ripples’’ bold breakbeats and slinky basslines make for one of the album’s most kinetic numbers, but the song does little to break up the overarching monotony. As a solo artist who’s far eclipsed the output of his former epoch-defining band, no one can criticise Brown for trying. But he can definitely do better.