The Verve – Urban Hymns (1997)
When you’re short of a record that you know everybody will like, Urban Hymns is always a great choice – triumphant and upstanding in any company, and spanning a wealth of musical genres.
This now legendary record is a landmark in 90’s popular culture, and in my opinion, shits all over anything Oasis ever did. A genuine British masterpiece. Bitter Sweet Symphony – to this day The Verve’s most successful single – was a seminal release in British music history. Fusing classical chamber music with contemporary indie-rock is no mean feat. Performed by the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra, and written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the score to this track stood untouched for years before Richard Ashcroft got his creative mitts on it and wrote a lyric. The finished product is definitely a contender for single of the 90’s.
If that wasn’t enough of a revolutionary opening, the album rolls into Sonnet, another of the four big singles off Urban Hymns, and one of the outstanding examples of Ashcroft’s urban songwriting. It’s also extremely difficult to get melancholy to soar; though Ashcroft seems to find it easy. The Rolling People is Zeppy in its eye-closing heaviness and oblique escapism, perhaps with a splash of U2’s Achtung Baby era. “I just can’t make it alone” sums up the core of the record. And, if U2 meets Zep isn’t enough of a mesh-comparison to wet the lips, I suggest you take up crown green bowls.
The Drugs Don’t Work is a necessary sombre; utterly sincere and affected from former junkie, Ashcroft. An endearing message to younger people about the perils of addiction. The mass of fans who flocked to buy Urban Hymns (over eight million in the UK alone) were people with kids and problems and real-life worries – these very human songs rang a huge collective bell. It’s the relate-ability of Ashcroft’s craft that makes this so compelling and accessible. Four songs in and you know you’ve definitely got a serious record on your hands.
Catching The Butterfly is, again, reminiscent of the industrial sounds used on U2’s Achtung Baby, and Neon Wilderness an immersing, spacial jam written by guitarist Nick McCabe. Ashcroft was quoted in the early 90’s saying ‘history has a place for us. It may take three albums but we will be there’ – turns out he wasn’t far off the mark. These songs are now fabled – take Space And Time for example – an atmospheric, wistful ballad that marked the hangover of Britpop. Just superb, as one might say on a Sunday afternoon nursing a pint. Suberb.
Weeping Willow is deeply and emotive. Comparisons have been drawn to Radiohead here, and why not. It’s a groove that leads brilliantly into the album highlight, Lucky Man. I was fifteen years old when I became obsessed with this amazing single. I vividly remember being immersed in some History coursework on Native Americans when I first heard it, and it quite simply opened up another dimension in my mind. That intro is just mesmeric. And so very, very simple. A magical achievement, both from a songwriting and recording perspective. I’ve performed this song myself hundreds, if not thousands of times for live audiences, and it never fails to be one of the best received of all live tracks – simply because of its stature. A song that defined an era, not just in my own life, but the lives of many. A song that, long after The Verve are forgotten, will still be an enduring part of the woodwork. And let’s face it, how many amongst us can consider themselves a lucky man?
Just when you’re wondering where this record can possibly go after that audible hurricane, this band pull out another piece of musical treasure. One Day, a sublime, experimental ballad shows the delicacy and poetics involved in Ashcroft’s craft: “One day baby we will dance again under fiery skies/One day maybe you will love again, love that never dies.” Immense depth of feeling from such a young musician, and justification for their often touted Space Rock / Shoegaze hybrid label.
Ashcroft’s memorable and everlasting tunesmithery bleeds and swoons and crashes and howls. Urban Hymns has far outlived the band, and many of its contemporaries. It’s also worth mentioning that the rest of the band need equal affirmation since Ashcroft often swamps the limelight: Simon Jones (bass), Peter Salisbury (drums), Nick McCabe (lead guitar), and Simon Tong (guitar/keyboards). I hope that Urban Hymns sits snugly on every music lovers’ shelf, and is dusted off occasionally as a reminder that there was something worth caring about in the 1990’s.
It was, of course, Liam that snarled: “Is it my imagination or have we finally found something worth living for?” The answer, back in 1997, was yes: Urban Hymns.
Top track trio: