31 October 1997

Review: The Verve's Grand Rock Move

Urban Hymns - The Verve
Virgin / Hut

The Verve's Grand Rock Move

By John Walker

Here it is: the British rock album that bigmouths such as Noel Gallagher and Ian "Mac" McCulloch wish they could have made in 1997 -- an album for which comparisons to past classics such as The Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street, Pink Floyd's Meddle and (especially) Van Morrison's Astral Weeks are not mere corporate hyperbole but instead literal truth.

Who could have known that The Verve, who seemed to have slipped off into the void forever following their pre-crack-up/breakdown sophomore album A Northern Soul in 1995, would regroup for a "comeback" that, for once, isn't a contradiction in terms? Yet here it is, a sprawling, beautiful collection of impassioned songsmithery from the man formerly known as "Mad" Richard Ashcroft, a tag sure to be replaced from this point on by "The Brilliant."

Not that The Verve hadn't hinted at greatness in the past: I still treasure The Verve E.P. from 1992, litttered as it was with neo-psychedelic gems such as "Gravity Grave," "She's A Superstar" and the ethereal "A Man Called Sun" (from which current U.K. faves Mansun took their name). And there were plenty of inspirational moments to be found on the two previous long- players, A Storm In Heaven and the aforementioned A Northern Soul as well.

But none of that had prepared me for the truly inspired re- emergence called Urban Hymns, the perfect title for a collection of timeless songs. Here, The Verve have fashioned a paean to the life (or lack thereof) we find ourselves enmeshed within at the end of the 20th century, daring to dig beneath the superficial glitz of consumer culture to drag out the torn and tattered soul of Western man.

To put it bluntly, the first five tracks here can stand with the opening five tracks of any album I've ever heard.

The sublime "Bitter Sweet Symphony" -- based in part around a bouncy string sample from an obscure orchestral version of The Rolling Stones' "The Last Time," while also evoking the majesty of prime-era Van Morrison -- is the kind of song that you truly wish would never end, as Ashcroft, in magnficent voice throughout, sets the tone for what is to follow with some aptly ambivalent reflections on life as we know it: "Cause it's a bitter sweet symphony, this life/ Trying to make ends meet/ You're a slave to money, then you die," he sings in an inspired tone, simultaneously expressing a hate for his existence and a powerful love for it. From the opening notes, the song strikes you as among the greatest lead-off tracks in rock history.

The Verve have fashioned a paean to the life (or lack thereof) we find ourselves enmeshed within at the end of the 20th century, daring to dig beneath the superficial glitz of consumer culture to drag out the torn and tattered soul of Western man.

Of the next four, tracks two and four, "Sonnet" and "The Drugs Don't Work," and tracks three and five, "The Rolling People" and "Catching The Butterfly" form stylistic duos: the former pair are both fine non- ironic examples of what rock balladry circa 1997 should sound like, updating the torn and frayed feel of Exile On Main Street for a new generation, complete with touches of country pedal-steel twang and lilting strings. Both are exactly the kind of songs that the recent Echo & the Bunnymen comeback Evergreen desperately tried and ultimately failed to deliver.

With "The Drugs Don't Work" especially, Ashcroft has come up with a late-'90s cross between Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" and the Stones' "Soul Survivor," somehow making ennui and dead-end desperation over into something spiritually uplifting. "All this talk of getting old/ it's getting me down my love/ like a cat in a bag, waiting to drown/ this time I'm coming down," he sings in what must be the most striking set of lyrics you'll hear this year. "Now the drugs don't work, they just make you worse/ but I know I'll see your face again."

Meanwhile, "The Rolling People" and "Catching The Butterfly" make a grand return to the musical terrain of The Verve E.P. and A Storm In Heaven: both are jazzy, roiling and exploratory sonic excursions reminiscent of Ummagumma Pink Floyd, as Ashcroft and guitarist Nick McCabe set the controls for the heart of sun and prove that you indeed can have your cake and eat it too. "Here we are the rolling people / can't stay for long, we gotta go," Ashcroft sings, creating an anthem for a new Beat Generation in the process.

New vistas are conjured, as The Verve renew the possibilities of rock music before your ears, refusing to concede that such things as limitations or boundaries exist.

And that's only the first five -- if there's any problem with Urban Hymns, it's that the sheer volume of great material here makes this an album that needs to be digested over time, in sections, as it were. Those who finally get past the stunning first five won't be let down, however: McCabe's eerie, ambient "Neon Wilderness," for instance, sounds like some unholy amalgam of The Stooges' "We Will Fall" and The Spacemen 3, while "Space and Time," a track which supposedly obsesses Liam Gallagher, is more fine balladry which postulates existential alienation as the main fact of our lives: "We have existence and it's all we share," Ashcroft laments as he nevertheless yearns for something higher and greater.

What's really impressive is that, as the tracks roll by, from "Weeping Willow" to "Lucky Man" straight through to the psychedelic sonic maelstrom of the closing call to arms, "Come On" (featuring the classic couplet "I must be feeling low/ I talked to God in a phone box on my way home"), they all bear up to close inspection, with no loss of quality control.

Ironically, while everyone was sitting around this year waiting for the usual suspects (Oasis or U2) to raise rock 'n' roll to new heights, it is The Verve -- the band who had been given (and had given themselves) up for dead -- who have re-emerged to unleash one of the classics not only of the year or even the decade, but of all time.

Long may they roll.
  • Review from Addicted to Noise