I’ve actually been in the presence of Richard Ashcroft. The final days of the 20th century, around Christmas ‘99, in Oxford Street, doing a bit of shopping with my Mum pushing me around in my pram. He just happened to be there, with an air of ‘Do you know who I am?’ about him. Not actually saying it out loud, but acting a wee bit cocky. Now if this was in a bar or something like that then fair enough, after all he had just come away from releasing Urban Hymns. But this was in Mothercare. Mums and bairns don’t really give a toss if you’re a rockstar in Mothercare.
Anyway, that’s besides the point.
The Verve have had a rocky history from what I have gathered. After their sophomore effort A Northern Soul was released in 1995, Ashcroft broke up the band out of nowhere. He quickly went back on this but it created a rift between himself and guitarist Nick McCabe, who did not return. Instead he was replaced very briefly by former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler (And frankly I am fascinated by the idea of a mesh of the music of the Verve and Suede), and then by Simon Tong, who would later go on tour with Blur to fill in for Graham Coxon during the Think Tank era. McCabe would eventually return, teaming up with Tong as the band worked on their third album.
Recording of Urban Hymns took place from late ’96 onwards when Britpop, while still a thing, was in its autumn days. The hype around Suede’s Coming Up was just beginning to wane and then come 1997 the genre would be gradually broken down, first by Blur, then OK Computer, and then of course Be Here Now. Therefore, Urban Hymns is typically classed as the last pure Britpop record as dance groups and boybands began to get a stranglehold on the UK charts, and This is Hardcore put the final nail in the coffin. Here’s hoping it went out with a bang rather than a whimper, eh?
Track #1 – Bitter Sweet Symphony
We’ve all heard it. We all know it. We all love it. I do to. I have nothing new to say about this masterclass of music other than a hearty f*ck you to Allen Klein. Listen to it and then we’ll get on with the second track.
Track #2 – Sonnet
After those infamous strings which dominate the first track, it’s refreshing to hear a more guitar-based follow-up. We get to hear McCabe’s signature psychedelic wibbly-wobbly guitar lines peppered throughout, which along with Ashcroft’s decent vocal work bring this just above a grade of standard. Not a spectacular song to be honest, but I do love the story behind its status as a single; the Verve’s record label wanted another single, the band didn’t, the label insisted, so the band sabotaged its release by releasing it as part of a quartet of 12-inch records. It couldn’t chart as a result. Well played.
Track #3 – The Rolling People
Love the mysterious opening to this one, those scratches of the guitar strings sounding like a heartbeat is fantastic. Very much a precursor to the next song, The Rolling People feels like a night out for a guy addicted to pills and thrills, and we get an impression of such a night as the song continues and reaches a manic and borderline uncontrolled conclusion. I’d have been tempted to have this be a single instead of Sonnet but c’est la vie.
Track #4 – The Drugs Don’t Work
And here’s the comedown. Drug use and 90s bands are like bread and butter. The Verve were no exception, leading to Ashcroft penning this song during the Northern Soul days. And I don’t think there is a better song that captures the utter futility of drug addiction. It’s a mesmerizingly beautiful and heartbreaking song, and you can tell Ashcroft is singing from the heart here, dwelling on his own experiences.
Track #5 – Catching the Butterfly
It’s at this point in Urban Hymns I start to get a little concerned about the pacing; this is only song number five of thirteen total, and by the time it’s over we’re already about half an hour in. However, I’m still along for the ride for now with this song which feels like an evolution from a jam session (Indeed, the whining noises remind me of The National Anthem from Kid A). Appearing less clinical helps Catching the Butterfly stand out, as does the drumwork from Peter Salisbury.
Track #6 – Neon Wilderness
The Verve have always had an undercurrent of space opera about them and that well and truly rears its head here, in a song about getting away from troubles. Where better to go to escape them than the far reaches of the big black?
Track #7 – Space And Time
Guest starring Liam Gallagher and his clapping hands (Although not getting him to play his tambourine was a missed opportunity). On the surface this song appears to be one about a couple whose relationship is failing, as they drift apart and argue constantly. But I think it’s more than that. I feel like this is a song from Ashcroft reaching out to McCabe, acknowledging their fraught friendship and despairing over it.
Track #8 – Weeping Willow
Depression is a poison, and you need that special someone to be the cure. Or at the very least an antibiotic…
Track #9 – Lucky Man
…And when you get that cure, you get a song like this. Lucky Man is an absolute masterpiece. If you ever need cheering up, especially in these tumultuous times, spare some time for this. You never quite realise how lucky you are sometimes, and it’s nice, if not essential, to be reminded. As an aside, I am loving this recurring theme of flip sides of the coin from Ashcroft; first the drugs with tracks four and five, now mental health with Weeping Willow and Lucky Man. It’s interesting to watch the same topic be tackled twice, you don’t see it that often. It’s the first time for me at any rate.
Track #10 – One Day
We’re still hovering around the topic of depression, but One Day translates it into hard times which will eventually pass. This track is host to some of the most beautiful lyrics on the album, such as ‘You’ve been swimming in the lonely sea/With no company’ and ‘You’ve got to tie yourself to the mast, my friend/And the storm will end’.
Track #11 – This Time
And now we’re at regret. We’re covering a lot of those ‘downer’ emotions in this second half of the album. Once again, Ashcroft looks back on the split of the band and how he built up a bit of acrimony between himself and his colleagues, especially McCabe. Nice sentiment, and we get a suitably melancholy song to boot, but this is starting to make me think this is turning into more a Richard Ashcroft album than a Verve album. After all that was the original intention before he got them all back together. It feels like he is gradually letting them go across the album instead of suddenly telling them to f*ck off like last time.
Track #12 – Velvet Morning
I feel like we’re stuck treading around already covered ground. You can only sing about the same so many times in a row, and it would be nice to hear a song that isn’t rooted in Richard’s mental health troubles. It’s here that I realise pacing has yet again become an issue and that the album has slowed right down. Velvet Morning is a fine song, don’t get me wrong, and ‘I was born a damaged little man’ is a powerful line. It just all feels same old, same old at this point.
Track #13 – Come On
And again. The only way this stands out is because it feels like the band has woken up and we get one last gasp of full blown guitar riffs, just to remind you it’s definitely a Verve album. Oh, and Liam’s in the background again. Come On is a good way to round things off though (I know Deep Freeze, the hidden track, is the real end coda but I don’t have anything to say about it). After milking the downer theme dry, Ashcroft stands up, sings, then growls, and concludes with a literal ‘f*ck you!’ to his troubles. I guess in hindsight that’s what depression does; what should be minutes feels like days until eventually you come out the other side, determined. And life goes on until you circle back around.
If we’re being honest this isn’t really a Verve album. This is more or less Richard Ashcroft’s solo debut that he just happened to do with his old bandmates. But he was right to realise that he could never have made this half as magical without them. McCabe, Salisbury, Tong, all help elevate the majority of this album massively. I don’t know if I can class this as their magnum opus seeing as I still have yet to listen to a chunk of A Northern Soul and the whole of A Storm in Heaven and Forth, but I think it’s safe to say they have some tough competition.
Urban Hymns is not a perfect album by any means. It has a tendency to drag, especially during the second half once we’re past the peak that is Lucky Man. But when it gets going, it is lightning gold, and there are some songs that may be 5 minutes or more that you just do not want to end. And if there’s one thing that I cannot deny about every single song on the playlist, it’s that they are chock full of emotion and heart. A lot of care has gone into them and it shows. So yeah, as what is commonly perceived as the final chapter in the Britpop book, it is a fabulous finale and I highly recommend it.
You know, going into this and having only really paid close attention to the Verve’s singles, I never actually used to rate Richard Ashcroft as a singer-songwriter. But now that I’ve waded through the Thom Yorkes, the Damon Albarns and the Jarvis Cockers of my playlists, I can safely say that Richard certainly has a way with words and his songs are nothing to be sniffed at. Still not good enough to warrant a ‘Do you know who I am?’ attitude in Mothercare, but regardless.