As I suspect it was for most, my first exposure to The Verve was through the heavily-rotated music video for “Bittersweet Symphony” in the summer of 1997 – the weirdly compelling sight of this skinny, morose guy resembling an anime rendering of Mick Jagger, shambling down the streets of London’s East End and bumping into people, while wailing a surprisingly lush existential rock lament. “Bittersweet Symphony,” as audiophiles know, is built from a sample of an old orchestral cover of the Rolling Stones song “The Last Time.” Due to the peculiar ins-and-outs of sampling rights, and the greed of the Stones’ former manager Allen Klein, The Verve were forced to relinquish all royalties from their biggest hit, and forfeit writing credits to Jagger and Richards. But “Bittersweet” got people to buy the album – and enough people bought Urban Hymns to compensate The Verve for the bitter pill forced upon them by Klein. Just as well too – listening to the entirety of the album, if you just picked it up on the strength of the lead track, is like finding an unexpected caramel centre inside your piece of chocolate. You would expect that the remainder of the tracks couldn’t possibly live up to the heights reached by “Bittersweet” – that they do is one of the most enduring surprises in store.
A lot of great art has arisen from unhappiness and The Verve are no exception. The English quartet (Richard Ashcroft, Nick McCabe, Simon Jones and Pete Salisbury) best known for their long psychedelic jams had already broken up once following the release of their previous album A Northern Soul. In fact, most of the tracks on what would become Urban Hymns were written by singer Ashcroft for a potential solo album. But the gang were persuaded to put their differences aside and give it one more go. Lead guitarist McCabe’s unique, trippy style elevates some of Ashcroft’s more pedestrian lyrical inclinations to create songs that are deeply emotional but dreamy at the same time. The album finds a decent balance between introspection and all-out rock: songs like “Sonnet,” “The Drugs Don’t Work” and “One Day” lean toward the tender, while “The Rolling People” and “Come On” let loose with primal fury; the latter even features a wild Ashcroft screaming a cathartic release of profanity as the album draws to a close. Those who grew up with the long-haired shoegazing iteration of The Verve will hear a tribute to their roots on the sole track bearing McCabe’s name in the writing credits, the aptly-titled wandering vibes of “Neon Wilderness.” And the album’s middle section features a powerhouse trifecta that is as good as anything the Stones themselves ever cranked out: “Space and Time,” “Weeping Willow” and “Lucky Man,” the latter of which no less a rock statesman than Bono once listed as one of the six songs from the last twenty years he wished he’d written. It is by no means a perfect album; Ashcroft veers toward the treacle, some of his couplets are quite awkward, and he can occasionally come off like Captain Obvious in his emotional pronouncements. But where he stumbles, McCabe and the others are there to pick up the slack, and the whole thing still manages to cook.
Ultimately, Urban Hymns contains enough treasure to be spread across three great albums, let alone this one solid, shining achievement – we listeners are lucky men ourselves that The Verve held together long enough to pull it off. Nick McCabe walked away in the middle of their subsequent tour, and it would not be until 2007 when tempers cooled enough between Ashcroft and the other three to try being The Verve again. The resulting effort, Forth, was a passable work, but only a glimmer of former greatness – whatever eclectic mix of ego and talent that had crystallized on the previous album wasn’t quite there this time, nor did it seem to be for the band, which promptly broke up again. In latter years The Verve have been written off as a one-hit wonder. But one would not dare set “Bittersweet Symphony” alongside the likes of “Disco Duck” or “Convoy” – The Verve have earned enough credibility with their signature song alone to merit a lasting berth in the echelons of rock. Fifteen years and a few regrettable commercial uses later (Nike and Vauxhall ads and the closing credits of Cruel Intentions), “Bittersweet” remains poignant, moving and powerful, a radio staple, and if nothing else, a beautiful song – one far more sweet than bitter.