Richard Ashcroft

Human Conditions (Virgin)

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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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