Album : Free All Angels – Ash
Review : The Guardian, 20 April 2001
Author : Betty Clarke
Nowadays it’s not cool to be young and enjoy it. Instead, adolescence is surrounded by negativity and teenagers just bemoan the fact that they have their whole lives in front of them. Fun without responsibility has been diluted by the likes of Wheatus, who celebrate the poor personal hygiene and dodgy taste in music that youth entails, by Westlife and their middle-aged, middle-of-the-road sentiments, and by dismissive declarations of “my generation” from the greying Limp Bizkit. Where are the head-spinning thrills, the heart-stopping lust, the celebration of golden summer holidays that seem to last for ever?
Step forward Ash, who (while they themselves wrestle with the complexities of mid-20s angst) have crystallised the pleasure and pain of being a teen. Back in 1996, when they kicked up some punk-pop dust with the single Kung Fu, Tim Wheeler, Mark Hamilton and Rick McMurray were the naughtiest kids in the Britpop class. Juggling a record deal with their A-levels, they hit the charts with the adrenaline-filled debut album 1977. Spawning indie classics Girl from Mars and Oh Yeah, 1977 conjured up playground longings and Kodak memories and set them to lush melodies and spiky guitars. Ash held on to their innocent exuberance, their Star Wars fixation and the knowledge that girls were an unknown but desired quantity.
Following a foray into soundtracks with A Life Less Ordinary, Ash acquired a new guitarist in Charlotte Hatherley and released their second album, Nu-Clear Sounds. But the joy had evaporated into thrash and an affection for the Jesus and Mary Chain that vanquished the optimism and fun of the past. Personally, things weren’t so great either. After two years of non-stop pop, the sweetness of success turned bitter for Wheeler, who gradually retreated into depression. Cue 18 months of suffering, silence and recovery.
But with Free All Angels, Ash have rediscovered their enthusiasm, and Wheeler – not just the singer but the band’s chief songwriter – has a smile on his face. From the beginning, you know it’s going to be good. Walking Barefoot has that trademark sense of nostalgia for a time you’re still experiencing. A great festival song, it’s about relishing a perfect moment while knowing it’s about to come to an end. “Remember when the sun was hot, remember when the days were long,” Wheeler sings, a homage to both lazy days and golden years.
The perfect pop ethic of simple, epic singalong songs continues with Shining Star, Ash’s greatest single since Girl from Mars, a celebration of someone special in sixth-form prose. World Domination is another call to arms to kids everywhere to kick off their trainers and jump up and down. With its “we don’t give a fuck how we’re meant to be” feelgood factor, plus count-in intro, speeding drums and rock guitars just distant enough from Status Quo to be cool, it’s destined to be an Ash anthem.
But Wheeler knows life isn’t all about good times, and Free All Angels has its share of sadness. New single Burn Baby Burn initially sounds joyful, but listen closer and you’ll hear how the nagging guitar really captures the sound of confusion in an ode to the slow death of a relationship. “You’re all I have in this teenage twilight,” Wheeler sings, while admitting that the bitter words and anger characterise the death of what was once his lifeline.
The obsession with stars is still apparent in many of the songs – from There’s a Star to the winsome hymn Sometimes, which blames the realignment of the stars for the loss of love – and so too are the layered harmonies and Beach Boys sound. Pacific Palisades in particular is very like the Barracudas, a fantastic melody rising like a wave before crashing into scrunched-up pop.
There’s some unlikely stuff too. On Nicole, Wheeler adopts a deranged serial-killer persona as he shouts: “I said no, I killed my baby, but I love her.” He gives the impression that the blood is still on his hands. The weirdness continues in Submission, which would find a suitably seedy home on Soft Cell’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret: a wannabe homage to S&M that doesn’t work because Wheeler’s voice is too thin to be scary. It’s like discovering your little brother’s secret stash of porn mags – it just makes you giggle.
Frothy, bizarre but beautiful, Candy is the most interesting song on the album. Wheeler does Dusty as the string section from the Walker Brothers’ Make It Easy on Yourself meets the sparse keyboards of Dr Dre‘s Next Episode in a song of sweetness and reassurance. Some unnecessary guitar messes up the ending, but it’s a brave and confident fusion of genres.
Free All Angels is simply great. Sometimes introspective, a bit strange, but most of all fun, it’s what being young is all about.
JC adds : As this series has demonstrated, there’s been a severe lack, over the years, of female writers when it comes to music reviews of the sort of stuff I’ve a love for, and it is interesting that I had to go to a broadsheet newspaper to dig this one out. It’s a review that would make me want to buy the album, rightfully acknowledging that a very fine debut effort had been followed up with something of a mishap, but passing on the news that the boys and new girl were back on track again.
I listened again to Free All Angels in its entirety for the first time in ages on the back of reading this review and found myself falling for its charms all over again. It certainly doesn’t feel or sound like an album that is not far short of 20 years old, and arguably deserves to be thought of as one of the best releases by a UK band from the period in question.