10 September 2008

Blogcritics reviews Forth

Comebacks are always about one of three things: money, sentimentality, or unfulfilled promise. Sometimes it's a combination: the most famous comeback of all, Elvis Presley's 1968 Lazarus-like, temporary resurrection — Vegas style — was an audacious cocktail of unrequited titillation and religious symbolism, calculatingly designed to prick both middle America's libido and buckle it's bible belt. At the other end of the spectrum is The Police's unlikely recent coming together for the first time since their acrimonious divorce more than twenty years ago. Sting spelled out the raison d'etre of their worldwide tour; "There will be no new album, no big new tour, once we're done with our reunion tour, that's it for the Police" leaving the trio an estimated $192 million dollars better off before parting ways.

Since The Verve imploded for a second time in May 1999 the possibility of reformation had been remote in the extreme. The band's core - singer and lyricist Richard Ashcroft and guitarist Nick McCabe - had enjoyed a massively fractious relationship even during their heyday, and whilst the former had gone on to pursue a solo career of greater commercial than critical impact, the latter had practically retired from music.

Paradoxically the success of their final album, 1997's Urban Hymns appeared to be a big part of the problem. Released in the unedifying final days of Brit pop at which point most observers seemed to have finally got the joke, it's melancholy spirituality proved an appealing foil to Oasis' coke-bore paean Be Here Now. It would go on to sell more than six million copies whilst spawning the modern classics "Bittersweet Symphony", "Sonnet" and "Lucky Man".

The subsequent creative tensions between the group's leadership would eventually signal their downfall. McCabe felt that Urban Hymns had strayed too far from the band's roots, a philosophy christened in the cosmic psychedelia of their first two albums A Storm in Heaven and A Northern Soul, decrying "Bittersweet Symphony" as "Up there with the best Bon Jovi record". For his part Ashcroft revealed that he had been working on solo material since 1996. Eventually, Dear John letters were sent.

It was two days after the conclusion of 2007's Glastonbury that Ashcroft announced to the world that he, McCabe, and fellow protagonists Simon Jones and Pete Salisbury had rebuilt their bridges and were planning to entering the studio for an exploratory session. Brushing off questions about the remarkable number of hatchets which had been swiftly buried, the singer then went on to prove that he was still as confident in the band's skin as his own, claiming that "We're one of the few bands who can jam and not sound like Lynyrd Skynyrd" and postulating that it would be a "Travesty" if a reformed Verve weren't allowed to headline the following year's festival.

Part of the ensuing get together was subsequently released as a free download, knowingly entitled The Thaw Sessions. It found a group sounding loose limbed and full of renewed vigor, but in its fourteen plus minutes, there was little for devotees of Urban Hymns to immediately identify with. By the time Glastonbury curator Michael Eavis acquiesced to Ashcroft's prophetic demands and awarded them with the this year's closing headline slot, sheer momentum dictated that, despite an almost incomparably familiar repetoire, the finale would be a new song "Love is Noise" rather than one of their trophy cabinet full of one size fits all anthems.

Here then was the fulfillment of The Verve's destiny - playing their music to the widest audiences possible, fans and curious alike, all soon to be re-caught up in the band's cosmic undertow. Other festival appearances followed, each seemingly more grandiose and triumphant than the last, but already rumours began to brew up in their wake. By the recent V festival, whispers were of bust ups in Japan and demands for a separate dressing room. All probably lies - but for Ashcroft and McCabe especially, it came with the territory.

Typically counter cyclical, the punningly titled Forth arrives at the end of a big touring stint. The Verve big top was once again open for business and reassuringly it was full of things that aren't really what they seem. As I previously hinted, it's probably appropriate now for those who fell for the charms of Urban Hymns, but have no desire to reach back beyond that, to pretty much stop reading here.

Ok. For the six of you left reading, let's continue.

The first thing that hits you is the realization that this is a band record. Ashcroft messianic zen seems subdued throughout, content to be a foil to McCabe's wall of sonic trickery, voice frequently left to wander down in the mix. Opener "Sit And Wonder", clocking in at just under seven minutes, freewheels understatedly, an evident result of a recording process which involved whittling down the band's nebulous existentialism, but still content not to get bound up in too much structure. Ashcroft speaks of crawling into a black hole and then begs for light throughout, further proof, in any were needed, that Forth is far from a belated shot at Snow Patrol's excruciatingly dull, but worthy, status as Christmas stocking filler du jour.

There are a handful of familiar totems for the class of '97 to groove to, but out of context the only conclusion to be drawn from the presence of the linear, expectation meeting "Love Is Noise" is that it's simply an airplay friendly horse of Troy.

Overall, two moods flourish - the visceral, frazzled psychedlia of "Noise Epic", "Columbo" and "Numbness" - the former pulling up somewhere between Queens Of The Stone Age and a youthful Bad Seeds. In juxtaposition, the campfire gentility of "Rather Be" and "Judas", both of which bearing the marks of an Ashcroft pushing hard for melody and reminding that this is the band who created the classic, mirror diving lysergic beauty of "Man Called Sun".

Much has changed since then. To their credit there is only one really uncomfortable moment - the mom-and-pop harmonics of "Valium Skies", never trust a song which contains the words "The air I breathe" - but on closer "Appalachian Springs" things begin to pull together, the words part monologue, part poem, all four members lining up behind each other in something resembling the formation which they probably envisaged over a year ago. Like the rest though, it deliberately fails to seek or draw any kind of conclusion.

Inevitably, given the baggage, the talk is not of how good, but how long. Ashcroft himself declared that the acid test of any comeback was for the reformed to get back in the saddle; undeniably it's a nettle which many of the Verve's quixotic forebears have failed to grasp. That they are an extraordinary band was never in question, constituted or not, permanent or not. That Forth fails to satisfy is however inevitable given the creative schism which followed their last release. Proud of its incongruity, had some Minnesotan solo artist recorded it in his mother's barn it would probably have been hailed as a classic. That it wasn't, and that the progenitors took a step back from the precipice of populist mediocrity is also to be admired. So if not so good, how long? Ashcroft's mojo is undoubtedly out of the bottle, but for as long as it continues to sacrifice itself for the cause, we may see things reach a state of temporary permanence for a while to come.