27 February 1998

Goldmine Magazine, New Releases: Urban Hymns

In the wake of a much-heralded Second British Invasion, it's clear a lot of UK rock'n' roll bands have regained myriad varieties of ambition. A few aim for grand artistic heights: Radiohead top the list, especially in terms of execution, with OK Computer. Sadly, the rest apparently aspire only to a grander way of living, and it's not great insight to call Oasis the undisputed money-grasping kings.

A little or even a lot of pandering would be tolerable if the Gallagher lads hadn't dragged so many bands into their vortex. The Verve once were least likely to be fooled, but 'Bitter Sweet Symphony," the opening track on Urban Hymns, epitomizes the good band gone wrong. Starting with syrupy strings, the song kicks into standard mid-tempo English blandness and Richard Ashcroft's voice glides over a modest hook. It would be an absolutely endearing song at the three-minute mark; at six minutes, it is a Monument to clueless, pointless indulgence.

That's the thing now, though: Be Here Now found Oasis stretching only the running times of their songs, and the results were mildly catchy but essentially enervating. The Verve, a better band from the start, have had to take a longer fall to get to the same level. Urban Hymns just plods and plods some more.

It's not just the Moebius replay of foursquare tempos and what writer Will Self called "the weight of dead culture" (phrased rather better by the Clash as 'phony Beatle-mania"). It's not just Chris Potter's completely middleweight production, which smothers what little action the music might have in a blanket of radio-embracing wool. It's not just the extra effects - hip-hop backbeats, orchestral sweeps - that add up to scant window-dressing.

No, its these things plus the Verve's self-satisfaction, even their smugness. Thanks to Noel and Liam, they know they can get away with vague rock 'n' roll if they surround it with auras of vaguer melancholy and the most white-bread trippiness. "Bitter Sweet Symphony" is all over modern-rock radio, so they're probably right. Deep down., the Verve probably had no better impulses while making as unprofoundly dull a piece of work as Urban Hymns, so they deserve to be buried underneath the piles of money they're now destined to collect.
  • Goldmine, New Releases: Urban Hymns, February 27, 1998
  • By: Jon M. Gilbertson