Since he brought down The Stone Roses at Reading 1996 with the most heart-breakingly farcical rock’n’roll suicide in history, the gods have not smiled on Ian Brown. Last year’s lumpy, unpolished debut album sounded like a botched demo trading on past glories. Asinine comments about homosexuality and an ugly air rage incident left the former generational icon looking like an arrogant, washed-up bully. Not even devoted fans could muster much sympathy when the singer’s hot-headed machismo landed him in jail a year ago.
With its triumphalist title, this sophomore solo effort could easily have been a rank swamp of bruised ego and self-justifying bluster akin to Mark Morrison’s risible post-prison manifesto ‘Only God Can Judge Me’. Amazingly, though, this is a left-field masterpiece and Brown’s best work for a decade.
[an error occurred while processing this directive] Firstly, all thoughts of karmic vengeance are wisely shrouded in lofty biblical imagery and a heavy fog of hashish smoke. The author alludes to his Strangeways stopover in the spare discotronic dirge ‘Free My Way’, with its mournful refrain: “Jingle jangle/Here’s the jailer/I cannot bear false witness”. Also, the sublime album closer ‘Babasonicos’ is reportedly Brown’s scornful response to the magistrate who sent him down, quietly insisting “the lady got no soul” over a strung-out bluesy twang. But any lyrical intent is lost in a miasma of deep-fried trip-hop and frayed guitars. The Portishead/Santana crossover starts here and, amazingly, it works a treat.
Co-written with programmer Dave McCracken and featuring ex-Fall drummer Simon Wolstencroft, ‘Golden Greats’ breaks new ground for Brown. Against a spare electro-ethnic backdrop, he comes over more like a Tricky-esque sci-fi rapper than a fallen rock idol. Most impressively, a symbolic decade after the first Roses album, he is finally shrugging off the burdensome legacy of his legendary past. After a blast of grinding Led Zep-oid riffola in the slight opening track ‘Getting High’, and the sonorous echo of ‘Fools Gold’ in the Stevie Wonder-kissed funkadelia of ‘Love Like A Fountain’, all obvious Roses parallels fall away. Instead, Brown finally delivers on that band’s unfulfilled promise to alchemise classic rock and electronic rhythms into an organic, exciting new form.
Sometimes, as in the woozy ‘Neptune’ or the stark ‘Set My Baby Free’, Brown manages to conjure majesty and mystery from little more than a parched chant and a metronomic keyboard riff. Chemical beats compete with rumbling strings in the militaristic mantra of ‘Golden Gaze’ and the shimmering Saharan heat haze of ‘Dolphins Were Monkeys’. Take away the sheen of skewed, stoned futurism and these dirty grooves could almost be Lenny Kravitz. But somehow Brown’s enduring air of aristocratic aloofness, however tattered and discredited, still gives him wings where others would stumble and fall.
Miles removed from the half-arsed roughness of its predecessor, ‘Golden Greats’ is a magisterial comeback founded on a wing and a prayer. It relies on listeners being too mesmerised by its exotic, opiated ambience to notice that Brown has tailored every track to his notoriously formless, foghorn voice. It gambles on the suggestion of hidden depths, the seductive promise of secrets not quite revealed. It may be nothing but smoke and mirrors, but it works. The karmic wheel has turned full circle. The gods are smiling on Ian Brown again. 8/10