Album Reviews

The Verve: Urban Hymns (Virgin)

After the release of their second album, 1995’s A Northern Soul, British psychedelic rock band The Verve seemed all but over. Inner tensions related to the album’s creation and general unhappiness led frontman Richard Ashcroft to disband the group, and when the band reconvened shortly thereafter, guitarist Nick McCabe chose not to return. They would limp on briefly without him, but decided to call it a day—a shame, as the band was on the verge of a commercial breakthrough. After a year’s hiatus, at the end of 1996 Ashcroft reconvened the band, and McCabe rejoined the group, and the band began work on their third album, Urban Hymns.

 

A Northern Soul had seen the band hone the loose, heavier, edgier psychedelic side in favor of a more refined sound, and Urban Hymns found them doing so even further, morphing their sound into a commercially friendly sound without ever really scrimping on their dark edges. That this was the era of Britpop—where modern rock bands were blending the sounds of the Sixties with contemporary styles into an amalgam built on straightforward rock and roll—didn’t hurt, either. Urban Hymns’s opening song and lead single, “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” would become the band’s signature hit. Of course, this blending of old and new proved problematic; the song was built upon an uncredited sample of the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time,” as recorded by Andrew Loog-Oldham’s easy listening orchestra. Yet the lawsuit only helped the song, and it became an international success.

“Bitter Sweet Symphony” is a grand slam anthem, but Urban Hymns is a fine album in its own right. Though superficially it seemed the long jamming that defined the band’s early singles and debut album A Storm In Heaven was gone, they hadn’t sacrificed anything in the process. The softer moments of “Sonnet,” “Weeping Willow,” and “Lucky Man” were sophisticated and intelligent numbers that highlighted Ashcroft’s maturing songwriting and gentler vocal side. But they hadn’t completely lost that psych-rock impulse, either; “Catching The Butterfly” and “Space And Time” shimmy with psychedelic light, and are on a par with their early sides. O the occasion where they blend the two, as on the epic “The Rolling People” and “The Drugs Don’t Work,” the results are sublime.

This expanded edition of Urban Hymns also shows that the album’s sound was no fluke; the set contains sixteen superb b-sides and remixes that could have easily formed a fine follow-up on its own, and would have offered up an album that offered up that same hybrid. “Lord I Guess I Never Know,” “So Sister,” and “Never Wanna See You Cry” are gorgeous rock ballads, while “Echo Bass,” “Country Song,” “The Longest Day,” and “Stamped” are explorations into the band’s psychedelic soul. And if one mistakenly thought that their more sophisticated sound came at the expense of losing their live edge, the BBC and live recordings offered here prove otherwise; the band made its name as one of the most powerful and potent live acts of the era, and if anything, they’d only grown into an even more exciting live act.

Though Urban Hymns burned bright, it also burned quickly, and the band burned out again—this time for good. McCabe would quit less than a year after the album’s release; the band sputtered on, eventually splitting in 1999, and that, seemingly, was that. They would reconvene a decade later, for the album Forth, and the reunion album would be successful, but the album felt like a band going through the motions, and they would split shortly after. But Urban Hymns remains one helluva potent burnout, an album that sounded amazing twenty years ago and one that has lost absolutely

Urban Hymns is available now via Virgin Records.

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