The Verve, Urban Hymns, 1997, Hut Records
Bitter Sweet Symphony
The Rolling People
The Drugs Don't Work
Catching the Butterfly
Space and Time
From Wigan near Manchester, The Verve formed whilst at college in 1990 and this was their third album and the most commercially successful of their career. It was released following their split and re-formation and spent 12 weeks at the top of the album chart (and 85 weeks in the chart in total) and was awarded the BRIT for Best British Album in 1998. The band also won Best British Group. Urban Hymns has since gone 11 times platinum in the UK as well as going platinum in the US.
Is there a calmer, more uplifting start to a rock album than the intro to Grammy-nominated Bitter Sweet Symphony? If there is, I’ve never heard it. Don’t those strings just make you feel, I don’t know, kind of classy? It’s no wonder this was such a successful single, all those Britpoppers filled with national pride not quite realising that this album was their genre’s swansong. Sonnet is objectively a better song though. Admittedly there is the hint of a U2 vibe to it, but it manages to stay just on the edge of the soppy side of a love song and there is a rather lovely guitar solo. As the drums kick in on The Rolling People you’re reminded of the band’s more psychedelic leanings in their early work. It’s very Oasis-esque, but the licks are sweet and it makes you want to move. The Drugs Don’t Work, the real anthem for the end of britpop and The Verve’s first number 1 single is one of the most depressing songs you’ll ever hear, but when Richard Ashcroft sings; “If heaven calls, I’m coming too” well, if you’ve lost someone you loved you’ll really feel that tiny little couplet in your soul. It’s a high point in a song that for me has always been a bit over-hyped and given more love than it truly deserves though. Catching the Butterfly puts me in mind of Muse. It has the same orchestral epic vibe, it’s a bit of a step away from the ballads and the drums do get a bit funky, but you certainly couldn’t describe it as cheery. Neon Wilderness is thankfully the shortest song in the album, it’s forgettable and it doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. Space and Time improves things with a much more traditional rock ballad, it’s the first positive sounding song at least. Weeping Willow is an improvement again, although it’s another very Oasis-esque song, it’s very well executed and brings you up out of the mire of the rest of the album up to now. Lucky Man is almost cheerful. There’s some nice guitar work on it, but somehow it’s not quite enough to lift the overall downbeat mood of the album. One Day is easily forgotten, but what’s this? This Time is actually pretty good. It’s uplifting, the melody is, dare I say it? Jaunty. I almost think this one was supposed to be throwaway but it’s actually a highlight for me. Yeah, this is surprisingly cool, 11 songs in we finally get something a little bit fun and actually quite uplifting. It’s a false dawn though and the despondent Velvet Morning is nothing to get excited about. We’ve made it at last to the end, Come On is the rockiest track, giving the rhythm section a chance to let loose. It’s an enjoyable ending after all those melancholy tracks, but I have to say I’m also glad it’s over.
I remember very much enjoying this album when it was released but now I just don’t get the hype. There are a couple of good songs but it’s mostly just depressing. The snatches of lyrical brilliance are few and far between and a lot of the songs seem to meld together. Perhaps it’s in part because the singles are so ubiquitous now but I just can’t get into it. It may have started with soaring strings but the epic-osity was unsustainable and there is a reason that the core four singles are the songs that are still being played while the rest of the tracks remain pretty forgettable. There’s also not really anything new here, distortion, feedback, walls of sound and epic soundscapes are there but it’s all been done before and generally with more insightful lyrics.
This album inspired bands like Coldplay and Keane (make of that what you will) and Richard Ashcroft still mines deeply from it when he performs live as a solo artist. Of course Bitter Sweet Symphony also has its own legacy as a tale of music copyright drama and corporate skulduggery that was only resolved this year (I admit I am a bit of a music copyright nerd but this is genuinely worth googling if you are unaware of the story).
Britpop gives way to Girl Power with a whimper rather than a bang then, despite The Verve’s famous penchant for rock and roll excess, but don’t worry, there’s much more to 1997 than this.