The Verve - Urban Hymns
THEY USED to call him mad, you know. Back in the days when The Verve were making their first enthusiastic bounds into the musical arena, at a time when bands like Carter and Senser collected all the critical and commercial bouquets, the critics dubbed Richard Ashcroft 'Mad'. That was his name: Mad Richard. Funny that. Here's one of the things he said back then, in 1993, that first earned him the 'mad' nickname.
"I hate indie music."
He said that, in 1993, before Oasis had signed a record deal, when white English guitar music was about nothing else. Here's how he followed it up:
"I'm into great music. Funkadelic, Can, Sly Stone, Neil Young, the Stones. Jazz. I can name you 50 bands who are doing OK now and in two years they will be forgotten. History will forget them. But history has a place for us. It may take three albums but we will be there."
And so it proved. Four years and two albums later, nobody calls Richard Ashcroft mad any more. If his name has to be shortened he is known simply as Richard Verve now, the skinny face that owns the voice that sings the songs of the only white guitar band to seize 1997 by its neck and shake it free of complacency. Nine months and two Verve singles into the year and even history addresses Richard Ashcroft with respect.
But step back a year, less maybe, and history had cancelled The Verve's reservation near the head of its table. Their last album, the epic 'A Northern Soul', was assured its legend as one of the decade's lost greats but the band had disintegrated, its two principal sources of inspiration, Ashcroft and guitarist Nick McCabe, torn apart by mental and physical burn-out. The tragedy of the piece was that a band that had put so much faith solely in the power of its own music had fallen in the end on the sword of this unrequited belief. As a nation romanced Oasis with a passion that would've suited The Verve fine, the obituaries that greeted their demise were slim... lights dim, curtains close, four shattered northern souls grieve quietly backstage with family and friends.
Act Two, Scene One opens in a burst of blinding light to searing, joyous strings, to the sound of a 'Bitter Sweet Symphony', The Verve's first single since their split and the opening song of praise from this collection of 'Urban Hymns'. 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 for anyone not so out of love with music that they're satisfied with Elton John's bleeding heart. But 'Urban Hymns' is a big, big record. Its scope and depth is not too dented by boasting two anthems like 'Bitter Sweet Symphony' and the chart-topping, tear-jerking 'The Drugs Don't Work'. There are other peaks to be scaled - the apocalyptic 'The Rolling People' and 'Come On', the aching odes to love setting in and breaking down on 'Sonnet' and 'Space And Time' - and the emotional pace is largely maintained throughout, only stumbling slightly towards the end when introspection perhaps begins to fog the lens a tad. But this is a long album too - 70 minutes, if you include the hidden track that jangles spacily like some outtake from their debut 'A Storm In Heaven' album, and echoes at its close to the sound of a baby crying - and as such it casts a powerful spell.
Indeed, the first five songs here pound all other guitar albums this year - bar Radiohead's 'OK Computer' - into the ground with their emotional ferocity and deftness of melodic touch. 'Bitter Sweet Symphony''s glorious rallying call to a million outsiders is met by a much more personal plea for salvation on 'Sonnet', but it's no less stinging for that. This is the sound of a man falling deeply in love and begging for some recognition of these feelings from his object of desire. "Sinking faster than a boat without a hull," moans Ashcroft as sweeping strings whip the gentle rhythm to a misty climax, "dreaming about about the day I can see you by my side... Yes, there's love if you want it".
But this mood of soft helplessness is torn apart by the ensuing 'The Rolling People', where the same army of outlanders addressed on 'Bitter Sweet Symphony' are on the march again. This time, however, they're armed with hard drugs and Kalashnikovs, and the closing freak-out sounds like the controlled explosion of the first three Led Zep albums in a metal box. Heady stuff, obviously, but with all peaks must come troughs and 'The Drugs Don't Work' captures the moment of romantic and pharmaceutical comedown with cinematic precision (rumour has it that the original demo version had Ashcroft crooning, "now the drugs don't work, they just make me worse", rather than "you", signifying... well, what Richard?).
A fifth song, a fifth speed on the emotional gearbox: 'Catching The Butterfly' roams a mystical plain last visited on their debut album and with its neon-lit, metallic guitar coda sounds like a trippy Joy Division, and it's a magnificent end to the first half of 'Urban Hymns'.
Time for an interlude. It's supplied by 'Neon Wilderness', it sounds like the start of Jeff Buckley's 'Mojo Pin' on repeat for a couple of minutes and it acts to cleanse the palate for the subtle change of mood on the second half of the record. Of the remaining seven songs only two, 'This Time' - Marvin Gaye born in Wigan and raised on psychedelic drugs - and 'Come On', couldn't probably be played solo on an acoustic guitar. This is possibly a legacy of the time Ashcroft spent apart from McCabe, and although it's no less affecting for that, it is an atmosphere more atuned to sitting on the sofa with a spliff than raging at the stars from the top of a hill.
Of these, 'Space And Time' is the most heart-breaking, its frank admission that a love affair is over set to an elegant strum: "We feel numb because we don't see that if we really cared and we really loved think of all the joy we'd share". It ends with Ashcroft moaning repeatedly that, "we have existence and it's all we share". A thousand rocky relationships will falter when this is played alone at home at night.
Elsewhere, 'Weeping Willow' bends majestically with melancholia and 'Lucky Man' revels in a string-fed atmosphere of self-awareness and defiance. 'One Day' casts an organ-fuelled soul shadow and the fuzzy, Neil Diamond-ish 'Velvet Morning' should give Ian McCulloch fair reason to retract some of the boasts made on behalf of his reborn Bunnymen, but by a now a mood of late-night doziness has descended and some kind of tonic is required.
Enter the grande finale 'Come On', all soaring guitars, trancey rhythms and Ashcroft screaming his live calling card of "COME ON!!!!" repeatedly. This is the classic Verve move, a perfect rejoiner to past glories like 'A New Decade' or 'Gravity Grave', and the best closing freak-out of an album since The Stone Roses' 'I Am The Resurrection'.
And then, with a little hidden tingle of electric guitar and infant squealing, The Verve's best album to date closes. It'll be a source of some satisfaction to them that the depth and soul of these 'Urban Hymns' far outstrips 'Be Here Now''s cold stare, and that it finally carves The Verve's name alongside that of their Mancunian peers in history's grand ledger. It insists, however, that they'll be the ones writing the next chapter.