The Verve: Urban Hymns
John McCready, Mojo, October 1997
I CAN'T HAVE BEEN ALONE in not being convinced. Yet there were people from day one and the debut LP A Storm In Heaven making great claims and ridiculous comparisons that just didn't make sense. That album and the disjointed, troubled and occasionally great follow-up, A Northern Soul, were hardly bad, but they seemed so far from the Hall of Fame assertions of the early believers as to be vaguely ridiculous.
Even the diehards must have switched off after Richard Ashcroft ran the group down following A Northern Soul, apparently to get rid of guitarist Nick McCabe. The pair, friends from Wigan schooldays, appeared to have fallen out in every way possible. McCabe now concedes that, by the end, he was no use to anyone and in the process of losing his mind. After the splint, they did not speak for two years. Tales of Keef-eclipsing excess circulated in the meantime and the nickname 'Mad Richard' stuck to Ashcroft. It looked like the old 'what if...?' trick, employed by devotees of hermetically-sealed legends like Big Star or The La's, would see them through.
And with Noel Gallagher's assertion that A Northern Soul was the second best LP of 1995, it was starting to work. In fact, Noel's 'Cast No Shadow' sketched Ashcroft as a troubled genius "blinded by all the words he had to say".
Nobody could have predicted the crashlanding of 'Bitter Sweet Symphony' two years later – a single that must have shocked Radiohead out of the obvious assumption that there wasn't anyone even a mile behind them. Here was a group in complete command of their own vocabulary, 100 times sharper than before, making their own selves seem like stumbling innocents.
How could this have happened?
Ashcroft rang McCabe out of the blue one day after various attempts to function musically without him. He'd tried to enlist big gun replacements like Bernard Butler and John Squire, but nothing worked. McCabe agreed to return, though he was obviously still nursing an open wound. It appears that not everything has been resolved and there are rumours that the group remains about as volatile as it is possible to be, frequently on the point of imploding once more.
Yet with this album – which substantially fulfills the promise of that single – the Verve become, impossible, the best we have.
Listening to 'The Drugs Don't Work' (not a drug song at all, as it happens) and 'Sonnet' (far from being as pretentious as its title suggests), it seems ridiculous that only four years ago these people wouldn't have known a song if it had flown out of their impressive collection of effects pedals and invited them round for tea. The Verve have realised that the icing on its own can't be considered a cake. Their undeniable ability to stretch out and jam in an instinctive way is unequalled. Here, they use it to the full on two spiralling explorations policed by co-producer Youth; other tracks were produced by one Chris Potter. On 'The Rolling People', McCabe makes a case for himself as a talent with no time for flash string-bending heroics, even during such a widescreen powersurge.
But it's Richard Ashcroft, having woken up from the unfocused sleepwalking of the previous records, who really shines here. This is, despite the fact that the Verve are quite definitely his group, his story; his triumph. With the record, you begin to understand why the usual litany of messianic hyperbole reserved for lead singers with a habit of singing with their arms outstretched is currently being thrown about with no sense of what the words really mean. His apparent troubles with drugs, relationships and depression have previously seemed like excuses made by others to add weight to his ramblings. Here, painful experience leads him to express himself in a direct way so free of artifice it can sometimes seems just blunt, even obvious. Here is a man who wants you to hear him. Like Pete Townshend packing away his own bag of lyrical tricks to sing 'Behind Blue Eyes', this is real and personal.
The modern blues of 'Bitter Sweet Symphony' is underlined by the bleak intensity of 'This Time' and 'Weeping Willow'. This is soul music like Joy Division's Closer. Essentially, a man has been tipped upside down by the world and he doesn't like it. Unlike Ian Curtis, however, despite the chilling delivery of lines like, "I must be going insane/I talked to God in a phone box on my way home" there is no sense that Ashcroft is going under. Time and time again here you hear him slapping himself in the face, trying to find some air packets of faith in these songs wrenched from his darkest hours. "Try to make ends meet/Try to find some money then you die," is a low balanced by the hard-bitten optimism of lines like, "And the world won't end/And there is no time for cracking up, believe me friend."
People have been waiting a long time for a record like this. The success of Radiohead was so predestined it's almost mathematical. We've all been sickened by groups swapping their nursery rhymes for hard cash and trainers. Step back to the Manic Street Preachers' yearning A Design For Life and it's clear that people want their music to hurt, to express some universal humanity. They want it to be about something. 'Bitter Sweet Symphony' is full of lines which hit hard, but perhaps the most telling is this: "I need to find some sounds that recognise the pain in me/But the airwaves are clean and there's nobody saying it to me now." We've cigarettes, our alcohol and rolled slowly down the hall faster than some nonsensical cannonball, finding ourselves reluctantly agreeing that biggest, richest, loudest are the best because they say so.
Time to wake up, then. While there are groups out there copying old masters onto bread boards, the Verve roll dark tones onto a wider canvas of concerns. That said, Urban Hymns is still essentially a rock record steeped in some very old traditions. It looks back 25 years but, instead of tracing over, it feeds from the spirit of the past, adding its own Zeitgeist-defining sense of fear and bewilderment, coming out fighting; bruised but ultimately optimistic.
This is not a perfect record. Like its authors it is fucked up and almost foolishly convinced it can achieve the impossible. Its greatness is in its humanity and in the sense that, from fear, failure and insecurity, it's possible to scale heights in a way which not only sets the standard for the rest of the year but the decade too.
Citation (Harvard format)
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