The Verve - A Northern Soul

IT HAPPENED a few weeks ago, like a bad rash erupting on the media's pasty flesh. And they were all at it - Paul 'Dad' Weller, 'Smiley' Tim Burgess, 'Mad' Richard Ashcroft - proclaiming from the studio rooftop, pondering in the dressing room slum, postulating from the depths of their bountiful beings. Verily (not to mention amazingly), The Modfather, The Baggyite and The Lamppost of a space cadet were all unanimous about one thing: 'soul' was where it was at.

A nation gagged heartily on its Frosties, but to no avail. The boys weren't for turning, they were for turning back the clock in all its finger-clicking, life-affirming, star-gazing glory.

Now here come Wigan's passionate, proud young men, grasping at their supposedly rightful glory, dissing virtually all of those who stand in their way and generally acting like the world dominating wonderers they always threatened to become. And who can blame them? Recent live reviews have been rapturous, Oasis are the staunchest of supporters, and only last week the 'On Your Own' single swooped into the Flab 30. So after all these years of yearnsome wafflings and occasionally outstanding stabs at skyscraping drama, The Verve are poised to go ballistic. Look at them, rocking gently back and forth on their heels, waiting for that rocket launch to Valhalla or Chingford or wherever is hip'n'happening at the moment. Then listen to - what else? - 'A Northern Soul' and think, "Brilliant! They're just as silly as they've ever been!".

Because The Verve's dogged pursuit of utter, preposterous po-faced perfection has always impressed the most. It's the urgency, the drive, the gaping mouths, the Droopy-Dawg-stoners-storming-the-barricades-of-the-banal script. It's the fact that nine of these 12 tracks cruise past the five-minute mark with splendid nonchalance. It's the fact that The Verve have always been ragingly, rockingly, rompingly ridiculous.

So how could 'A Northern Soul' possibly exist without balancing out pop's fundamental Yin & Yang - the brilliant with the downright daft? Answer: wobblingly.

There's this great moment when, at the start of 'History' Richard croons, "I wander lonely streets behind where the old Thames does flow". And you think, eh? Forsooth! Fetch this good fellow a flagon of your finest ale! The fact that 'History' pretends to be this weepy, string-laden crossbreed of Bowie's 'Starman' and Frankie's 'Power Of Love' merely adds to the surreal effect.

The bit in the cool, hipswaying 'Life's An Ocean' is smart as well, when Dickie sighs, "Too much commotion, too much emotion dragging me down". And best of all, amidst the immaculate guitar spirals of 'So It Goes' we trip - in more ways than one, natch - over Dickie the Dalai Lama: "You come in on your own in this life," he observes, not unreasonably.

The Verve are silly because (and it's no criticism) they are so serious. Even during the cranky, pseudo-industrial 'Brainstorm Interlude' (heavy on the old make acrobatics, even heavier on the old make-it-up-as-you-go-along U2 kick) The Verve exude such a sense of astounding self-belief that they can almost convince you that even their more nonsensical moments should be cast in gold, carved in stone and treated with the utmost artistic respect.

Marry that self-belief with music that actually justifies the swagger on the other hand and The Verve are onto a few sly winners: the dramatic 'Stormy Clouds'; the maudlin 'Drive You Home' - very chilled, very meandering, very heart, liver and intestines on sleeve. 'So It Goes' recovers brilliantly from its earlier aberration to grant Dickie the opportunity to groan, "Another drink and I won't miss her," like a true angst-tastic trooper. And then there's the extremely fine 'No Knock On My Door', wherein Our Man does a passable impersonation of Shaun Ryder in a launderette as raw riffs lurch and destroy around him.

In other words, 'A Northern Soul' is a typical Verve experience. It has waffly sonic bits! It has bits that you think you can sing along to, but you can never quite remember how any particular chorus goes. And it has bits that, quite simply, smell like sky.

As is traditional with The Verve's oeuvre, half of this collection will have you surfing the stratosphere in blissful joy, while the remainder will cause you to chew on the furniture in dazed disbelief, cursing the day that God in Her Infinite stoned wisdom invented rolling papers whilst accidentally spilling toxic substances onto a piece of blotting paper. So, no change there, then.

Global domination? Maybe next time, chaps. Maybe next time...


Simon Williams