10 May 2010

Making a Verve album out of 'Urban Hymns'

Would you rearrange one of the greatest albums of the 90s, a masterpiece from start to finish, and one of the all time great British Rock albums ever that earned nearly unanimous critical praise upon release?
  • "Bitter Sweet Symphony" was nominated for the 1999 Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or A Group With Vocal and Best Rock Song.
  • Rolling Stone (10/16/97, pp.104-106) - 3.5 Stars (out of 5) - "...their strongest album to date....the songs on URBAN HYMNS are anchored by propulsive guitar rhythms and sinuous, infectious vocals....a breathtaking venture, an ambitious balance of stargazing and worldweary pathos."
  • Entertainment Weekly (10/10/97, p.92) - "...a surprising--and stunning--comeback from Britain's shoe-gazing shamans the Verve, resurrected after two splintered years. Crooner Richard Ashcroft makes it all sound like churchworthy gospel." - Rating: B+
  • Q (10/01, p.81) - Ranked #18 in Q's "Best 50 Albums of Q's Lifetime"
  • Q (12/99, p.92) - Included in Q Magazine's "90 Best Albums Of The 1990s."
  • Q (1/98, p.115) - Included in Q Magazine's "50 Best Albums of 1997."
  • Q (6/00, p.69) - Ranked #58 in Q's "100 Greatest British Albums" - "...Rose to national anthem league, an appeal to a post-club generation who now use rock'n'roll as a comedown aid..."
  • Q (7/00, p.141) - Included in Q's "The Best Male Angst Albums Of All Time"
  • Uncut (p.108) - "[T]he most striking qualities of URBAN HYMNS now are its musical coherence and the powerfully sustained mood of melancholic stoicism."
  • Melody Maker (12/20-27/97, pp.66-67) - Ranked #1 on Melody Maker's list of 1997's "Albums Of The Year."
  • Melody Maker (10/4/97, p.51) - "...An album of unparalleled beauty so intent on grabbing at the strands of music's multi-hued history....all songs which sound like they've lived a little more than most."
  • Village Voice (2/24/98) - Ranked #18 in the Village Voice's 1997 Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll.
  • NME (Magazine) (12/20-27/97, pp.78-79) - Ranked #3 in NME's 1997 Critics' Poll.
  • NME (Magazine) (9/27/97, p.54) - 8 (out of 10) - "....Its sheer magnificence and spirit is such that the danger of it overwhelming anything that follows it is obvious. This, after all, is the musical signature of the year....The Verve's best album to date..."

Someone did. Check out, "Playing God with The Verve's Urban Hymns," an opinion piece by Nick Southall for Stylus Magazine below, or link here.

Richard Ashcroft said early on that it would take (The) Verve three albums to be fully appreciated, three albums to become brilliant, it’s just that amidst all the patchouli stench and proclamations about how he could fly, no one noticed because for all intents and purposes he was an overly-psychedelic, Jagger/Morrison-aping buffoon, and we should always be wary of skinny men with messy hair who think they’re both dangerous and deep.

Of course “Bittersweet Symphony” when heard over the radio those first few times didn’t have that phenomenal, ridiculous grandeur that it would later assume (partly because Radio 1 is so compressed that, well, everything sounds nasty [and now you get The Killers making records which sound like that anyway] and partly because of that outlandish video which finally transformed Ashcroft into the swaggering semi-messianic figure of cool he always wanted to be). Noel Gallagher said, after it hit, “just wait until you hear what they’re putting out next!”, meaning “The Drugs Don’t Work” but, live version on MTV2 (just McCabe and Ashcroft, the former painting bizarre feline mewlings over the latter’s po-faced Gram-Parsons-and-a-guitar strum) aside, I didn’t really get what he meant. But I trusted The Verve, and thought they would make the record that contained it all and would end the world.

I remember the day it came out—I stayed at home all day with the CD and friends would drop by to sit and listen to it with me. We’d been waiting for it, you see, and we convinced ourselves, to start with, as callow 18-year-olds, that it was awesome and fateful and loaded with sound and meaning like nothing before. In the cold light of distance… my affection for it faded fast, possibly as too many bully-boys seized and lauded it, possibly back to that first year at university and the fact that the only record that both I and one guy who I really did not like owned was Urban Hymns. People like that weren’t meant to like The Verve.

But put the snobbishness aside. Of course I’ve been listening to various building blocks of Urban Hymns lately, because I’m writing about it and it would be silly not to. And, loud, on headphones or through a big hi-fi, it sounds pretty awesome. Which is what (The) Verve were always about. Sound. Sure it’s too smooth—you need serious high-end gear to get a bass THWACK out of “Bittersweet Symphony” and to hear all those tiny, liquid ripples of guitar that cascade through “Catching The Butterfly”, but the aesthetic is formidable. Huge, detailed, modern, all encompassing. But it could be better. It could be better if you got rid of the dodgy, saccharine ballads, brought in some muscle and some psychosis from the b-sides, made it less melancholic, more enjoyable, more visceral.

And so, in my universe, Urban Hymns might look a little like this…

1. “Bittersweet Symphony”
2. “Three Steps”
3. “Weeping Willow”
4. “Country Song”
5. “This Time”
6. “Stamped”
7. “The Rolling People”
8. “Catching The Butterfly”
9. “Echo Bass”
10. “Lucky Man”
11. “Come On”

Which makes it two songs and about 8 minutes shorter. Which shifts the compositional balance of the album away from Ashcroft and back into the hands of the band themselves, which means that this Urban Hymns is a Verve album rather than a surreptitious solo debut.

Improvements? The ridiculous, lavish grandiosity of that opener (the most defining song of 90s Britain, perhaps?) isn’t followed by the momentum-and-mood-killing sixth-form songwriter tripe of “Sonnet” but rather by the joyous guitar groove of “Three Steps,” from the b-side of “The Drugs Don’t Work,” with McCabe, Salisbury, Tong, and Jones amping the energy up while Ashcroft claims it “feels so good to be alive” and that there are “three steps to heaven, man / I took two and sat back down again.”

The Verve were always about creating new worlds using sound and you need to enter them completely and unconditionally to get the most out of it. The debut was a strange universe of floating trees and passageways into the afterlife, and A Northern Soul was a decayed cityscape of lust, death, and musical fate, ravaged by elemental forces. So what’s Urban Hymns? A surreal noir where God talks to you only to confirm his non-existence, where redemption is sought and found? I don’t want redemption to be found; films are always more satisfying without a happy denouement. Let’s lose the redemptive ballads.

“The Drugs Don’t Work” is discarded for being mawkish, ego-wank rubbish. “Space And Time” goes for being about nothing and not being interesting either. “One Day” and “Velvet Morning” both go for being hideous, dull, and the exact same song. “Weeping Willow” gets to stay because of its talk of guns under pillows and its intense, rich sonic layering. “Country Song” jumps from the b-side of “Bittersweet Symphony” because it’s a melodramatic, over-long suicide fantasy with repeatedly terrific guitar pay-offs as McCabe knocks out gorgeous Chet-Atkins-in-space fill after fill (just get that cascade on the five-minute mark after Ashcroft bleats “some days I’m fine / But I don’t think that’s right / Some days are OK / But only when I’m high”). The brief (by Verve standards) handclaps and vocal interplay of “This Time” stays because it was one of only about five songs on the original album which sounded as if it wasn’t written on an acoustic guitar. Also, handclaps!

“Stamped” is brought forward from the back of “The Drugs Don’t Work” and used as the mid-way point in the album, the psychedelic groove which tells us we’re halfway through. “The Rolling People” is preposterous enough to remain, tiny drips and revving engines of guitars and those daft bass-drum pumps. “Catching The Butterfly” was arguably the best thing about the album anyway, and so furthers the groove, some telepathic fusion driving The Verve forwards into “Echo Bass,” another “Bittersweet Symphony” b-side, named after one of its components and so ludicrously detailed and rhythmic that it makes you itch and twitch for seven minutes, continually dropping out and then dropping back in again after a pause for vibraphone or venting factories.

And after all this repetitive-beat play and sonic indulgence we perhaps deserve a song, a touch of redemption. If you ignore the lyrics (“I’m a lucky man / With fire in my hands,” “”I’m stood here naked / You’re smiling / I feel no disgrace”—oh COME ON for heaven’s sake) then “Lucky Man” can stay, McCabe’s guitar and that soaring string lift-off to close almost making your chest burst after all the introversion and darkness that I’ve made come before. It could almost make you think Ashcroft is as good a songwriter as he believes.

But we can’t end on a happy. “Come On” lets all the batshit promental lunacy out of Ashcroft’s head and McCabe’s hands, the most monster riff and groove the band ever produced, piling element-on-element and screaming and spitting until they regress into testosterone threats and swearing, “slipping into oblivion,” animalistic growls and squawks coming from both the singer and the guitarist while that awesome, elemental rhythm section holds it all together somehow, like they always did.

Of course anyone who ever complained about The Verve producing little more than tedious, indulgent stoner-rock dirge isn’t going to be won over by this new sequencing of their biggest and best known album, but I don’t care—this alternate-universe Urban Hymns is designed so that I can enjoy every minute of it, planned as the album I wanted them to make after A Northern Soul, and as such it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. But together like this, Urban Hymns actually is an awesome record at last.