Classic Album Review: Urban Hymns

By 1997, Britpop’s clashing titans were morphing into sharply different entities. Blur had just released their self-titled album, while Oasis had dropped the highly anticipated and quite frankly disappointing Be Here Now. That opened up a big opportunity UK misfits the Verve to swoop in and conquer the nation with their blockbuster third album, Urban Hymns. A record that has come to be viewed as the final rendition for Britpop’s cultural dominance, but at the time suggested an intriguing and fascinating next stage in its evolution. The record itself boasted the stadium grandeur of Oasis while distancing itself from Britpop’s traditional 60’s/70’s rock basis.

The story of the Verve is textbook fairytale and somewhat fairly similar to that of Oasis’ squabbling brothers. Bursting onto the scene with a variety of fantastic, timeless records in which they proceeded to dissolve into acrimony and disappointment. Formed in the North of Wigan, another town void of prospect and opportunity in the 90’s provided the perfect breeding ground for escapism, Britpop rock.

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However, the Verve were always on shaky ground even before the release of Urban Hymns. Their most successful single up until the release was 1995’s string-swept ballad “History”. The notoriously troublesome relationship between frontman Richard Ashcroft and guitarist Nick McCabe triggered the band’s demise just before the single had time to sneak into the UK Top 30. Ashcroft, bassist Simon Jones, and drummer Pete Salisbury would swiftly regroup with a new guitarist (Simon Tong) to begin work on a record that at the time, seemed destined to become an Ashcroft solo release. Ashcroft sound realised his project/vision would be unassailable without McCabe’s six-string mastery. McCabe returned back into the fold and the band was reformulated as a five-piece, the Verve’s comeback narrative was in motion.

On the Verve’s first two records, McCabe was the powerhouse general that helped place the band into the stratosphere. However, on Urban Hymns, McCabe takes a backseat as the Verve achieve a more elegant orchestration. Where, in their early days, an menacing ambient piece like “Neon Wilderness” would be extended into a 10-minute dream, on Urban Hymns it features as a brief, bridging interlude, a foggy flashback to the band they once were. Strobe-lit, wah-wah-splattered, moody jams like “The Rolling People” were now the exceptions rather than the norm.

McCabe’s presence is once again barely notable on the album’s crowning and most iconic achievement, “Bitter Sweet Symphony”.  A glistening, jewel of a track that injected Britpop with a healthy dose of anarchism.  Urban Hymns’ other pinnacles such as the celestial sing-alongs such as “The Drugs Don’t Work,” “Sonnet,” and “Lucky Man”—likewise use windswept strings and tasteful ambient shading to fill in the space where McCabe’s heavenly storms used to once rage.

Ashcroft and the Verve have since been long acclaimed and celebrated as one of the most innovative and magical bands that emerged from contemporary British pop. Perfecting an oceanic  sound that managed to fuse 60’s space psychedelia with shimmering shoe-gaze atmospherics. The Verve languished and toiled in relative obscurity, biding their time waiting for the world to become accepting of their revolutionary sound. The band from Wigan created one of the most complex and sonically rewarding pieces in modern British rock history long before most listeners and fans had even learned of the group’s existence only to fall apart again succumb at the height of their success.

Less than a month after their Haigh Hall coronation, a disgruntled McCabe once again left the band once, prior to a North American arena tour. What should’ve been a victory lap around the states quickly developed into a funeral procession, with Ashcroft and co. dutifully easing through the motions alongside a hired session-player replacement before calling it a day once again. Of course, as the lyrics to “Bitter Sweet Symphony” certified, the Verve had at that point become well accustomed to life’s cruel twists and unforgiving ironies. This was a band that knew it was living on borrowed time. But this record is a true testament to what can happen when you make the most of it.

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Released: September 1997

Produced by:  Chris PotterMartin Glover

Tracklist:

  1. ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’
  2. ‘Sonnet’
  3. ‘The Rolling People’
  4. ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’
  5. ‘Catching The Butterfly’
  6. ‘Neon Wilderness’
  7. ‘Space And Time’
  8. ‘Weeping Willow’
  9. ‘Lucky Man’
  10. ‘One Day’
  11. ‘This Time’
  12. ‘Velvet Morning’
  13. ‘Come On’

Words: Matthew Thomas

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