Ian Brown is a positive-thinking kind of guy, someone who borrowed heavily from the past while keeping focused on the future back when he fronted the Stone Roses. After that band was crushed under the weight of the severe anxiety induced by the specter of trying to live up to a near-perfect debut album (coupled with a spot of self-indulgent laziness and copious drug abuse), Brown seemed intent on leaving the Roses behind him. But in a hypothetical world in which the Stone Roses never existed, it's questionable whether Brown would even have a recording contract, let alone four albums out under his own name. Much as he may want to escape his past, Brown's history is the most compelling thing about him at this point.
Brown's latest album, Solarized, is a disappointment after 2001's rather strong Music of the Spheres. It continues on in the same sonic vein he nearly exhausted on his solo debut, Unfinished Monkey Business, which mixed dated-sounding programmed bits with live guitars and his steadily deteriorating croak of a voice. But where that approach made a certain sense in 1996, when Brown was working largely alone in the studio and reacting against the self-indulgent guitar wankery that dominated the Roses' second (and final) album, it now brings to mind an image of someone stuck on a treadmill who has been fooled into believing that he's actually moving forward.
Lead track "Longsight M13" offers a sort of Ian Brown template, opening with a bit of backwards-played guitar to remind you that this is an album by someone who used to be in a band that released backwards versions of their songs as b-sides. Brown's raspy voice kicks in to deliver the opening couplet before the leaden robo-beats kick in, and he starts yammering on about his dreams and hopes and the envious people that he's left behind and how it's all good because love will fly and he's got his girl at his side or something.
Similarly dull and rock-ist is "Destiny or Circumstances," which rides a fuzz- and sustain-heavy guitar part to nowhere, Brown seemingly making up the words as he sings, referencing "the lord of the dance" (not Michael Flatley, hopefully, but the Jesus of the Sydney Carter folk tune) and pondering the question of predestination while simultaneously delivering a more earthly love song. The mess that is this song's lyric typifies Brown's limitations; he knows that great songs lend themselves to multiple meanings, but lacks the deft touch to deliver them, resulting instead in a jumbled hodgepodge.
Perhaps the saddest display of Brown's decline appears on "Keep What Ya Got," co-written by and recorded with Oasis' Noel Gallagher. A decade back, this might've been an exciting collaboration between teacher and student, but in 2004 it's naught but a Britpop version of, say, one of the Black Crowes guesting on a Mick Jagger album. The Gallagher-esque "ya" in the title warns us that suckiness lies ahead; the sludgy wall of late-period-Oasis-sounding bass and plinkety piano that begin the song confirm the crumminess. Sing-songy rhymes, nasal singer, flanged guitars, leaden rhythm… it's almost as if the snake is swallowing its own tail as Brown apes Oasis in the same way that that band once copied from the Roses. Progress this is not.
That's not to say that Brown is lacking in ambition, as he continues to experiment with different sounds and themes throughout Solarized. Mariachi-style trumpets and horns dominate "Time Is My Everything" and reappear in a more subdued form on "Sweet Fantastic," but neither track does anything to go past the clichés that their titles suggest. The brooding "Upside Down," another trumpet-fortified song, finds Brown in melancholic political mode, with a fairly inspired line about oil being "the spice to make a man forget a man's worth."
The album's sole keeper arrives at the end with the paranoid yet cheeky "Kiss Ya Lips (No I.D.)," a funk-fueled number protesting the invasion of our privacy in a post-9/11 world. While Brown composed the bulk of this album alone or with frequent collaborator Aziz Abraham, this particular track was co-written by a Darren Moss; perhaps the pair will team up more in the future to further positive effect. Here's hoping that they do, and that Brown can pull out of his creative slump.