Robbie Williams/Richard Ashcroft

Among the coalition nations engaged in Operation Iraqi Freedom, England is obviously second among equals. When it comes to contemporary music, though, Tony Blair and company have definitely earned bragging rights. Simply put, the UK is producing smarter, more interesting, higher-caliber pop stars than anything the self-declared greatest country on earth has managed of late. Or is that not giving Justin Timberlake a fair shake?

Witness Robbie Williams, who's the shiniest of luminaries in the European Union and beyond, but remains a minor figure in the U.S. of A. The reason usually given for this failure to connect with stateside listeners is his new-world variation on old-world cheekiness, of which there is no better example on Escapology than "Handsome Man," a tune that finds the Robster declaring, "I'm the one who put the 'Brit' in 'celebrity.'" Still, anyone who knows that irony isn't used to press clothes should be able to figure out that he's having a lark, not nominating himself for sainthood -- and for those who are still uncertain, the wry couplet "You can't argue with popularity/ Well, you could, but you'd be wrong" should clear up any confusion. While his egocentrism can get a tad tiresome on occasion (the musically irresistible but lyrically crass "Sexed Up" is a case in point), he's great at oversized gestures like those found in the wonderfully melodramatic "Love Somebody," in which phony passion proves to be even more appealing than the real thing. As a bonus, he's idiosyncratic enough to include "Me and My Monkey," a seven-minutes-plus opus in which Williams's simian companion has an unquenchable desire to see Sheena Easton before he dies. Must've mistaken her for Sheena: Queen of the Jungle.

Unlike the compulsively extroverted Williams, Richard Ashcroft is insular and self-reflective, but with an underpinning of sensuality. In "Check the Meaning," for instance, Muhammad, Allah, Buddha and Jesus Christ take on the female form at the very moment Ashcroft is meditating about love -- a sacrilegious image, perhaps, but one likely to convince a lot of dudes that church isn't so bad after all. Such heavenly themes are commonplace on Human Conditions, which sports songs with titles such as "Paradise," "God in the Numbers," "Lord I've Been Trying" and "The Miracle." Yet if Ashcroft is more an anguished agnostic than a pious apostle, his music regularly reaches for the skies. Lush, layered and meticulous, with woozy hooks and heavily orchestrated psychedelic elements, his tunes constitute aural cathedrals that are frequently thrilling to behold. Like guest Brian Wilson, who arranges his own backing vocals on the casually majestic "Nature is the Law," Ashcroft wants to blow minds, starting with his own. More often than not, he succeeds.

Of course, skills like these don't mean jack in America these days. So until the cycle changes, God save the queen.


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