Richard Ashcroft 

Human Conditions (Virgin)

Leaning closer to the mystical indulgence of someone like Cat Stevens than to George Harrison's generous spirituality, an entire Richard Ashcroft album feels at times like a long audience with a charismatic zen master. As on Ashcroft's solo debut, Alone With Everybody, Human Conditions offers pearls and puffery alike.

Luckily, the cult-iconic northern Englishman backloads this 11-track collection with brilliance -- those with shorter attention spans can just start at track six, "Science of Silence." The song is well-chosen as the album's first single: Its symphonic hooks and blue-eyed soul harmonies should shut up anyone who finds its refrain -- "We are on a rock, spinning silently" -- a little too grandiloquent. The quiet "Man on a Mission" follows, with ringingly astute lines to rival Verve's signature "Bittersweet Symphony": "When you're runnin' on your own, you ain't like a rolling stone, because a stone will find its place," Ashcroft sings in a croon as sharp as his gaunt features. When Ashcroft comes up with an albumful of hooks as profound as his words, he will have made a masterpiece. Until then, either ready your skip-button finger, or assume the lotus position.

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