“Bitter Sweet Symphony” – The Verve, 1997.
Back when I was still playing around with what kind of blog I was looking to write, and fancying part of myself a frustrated successor to Lester Bangs, I did a pretty comprehensive review of The Verve’s Urban Hymns album, which you can read here. That of course was a clinical discussion of the music’s technical merits with little space given to personal reflection. What I didn’t get into was how that album and this song in particular clobbered me out of a fog of complacency like an electric sledgehammer in 1997.
After my mother succumbed to cancer in the early spring of 1995, leaving my sister and I orphaned teenagers, I spent months trying to figure out who I was and what the hell I was going to do now. A little more on this “lost weekend” period when we get to the “O” song in a few weeks, but suffice to say it was months spent reeling, wallowing, sinking into a mire out of which I had no desire to climb, while faking a smile for the cameras and for the benefit of friends and family I did not want to see me as an inconsolable basket case. I hid away in my garret of an apartment and wrote screenplays. They were formless, profanity-heavy treatises of obvious anger and guilt, the only way I knew how to process the turmoil in my brain and the rift in my heart. From the comfortable perch of twenty years’ distance I can laugh at them as examples of Graham’s Emo Period, to be sequestered forever in the Vault of Bad Ideas, but back then they were my lifeline, as was the non-Internet capable computer I was writing them on. If nothing else, they helped me become a much faster typist, as my fingers had to learn to keep up with the gushing wellspring of angst.
“Bitter Sweet Symphony,” as Verve fans know, is layered on a sample of an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time.” I heard it for the first time while visiting my sister up at her university one weekend. Having only a few soundtrack CD’s in my collection at the time, relying too much on a shoebox full of old mixtapes and being somewhat phobic of the radio, I wasn’t hearing much that was new, or, at least, non-orchestral. But like so many others I was arrested instantly by the bold, melancholy string motif that introduces the song in a gentle crescendo, building to the moment Richard Ashcroft opens his mouth and lets the words pour out in a soulful torrent. His first message isn’t terribly enlightened, or optimistic for that matter: “Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to money then you die.” Indeed, I’ve read more than one review that has dismissed the lyrics as trite. But as the strings continue to bow, the drums pound and the song evolves toward its multi-tracked vocal coda, something clicks. As does the now-infamous music video, featuring the sullen Ashcroft walking a London street, so single-minded of purpose and destination he bumps into everyone he passes and ignores the young woman he flattens.
Being “a million different people from one day to the next” is rather what is expected of us in what can often be a bittersweet life, isn’t it. Be the husband, the father, the best friend, the professional, the stranger, the lover, the fighter, the poet, the misanthrope, the shoulder, the cold shoulder. Somewhere in that mass of contradictions, the cacophonous throng of a million different people, we find the truth of who we are, and it shifts like sand beneath our feet blown by the west wind. In 1997, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was proclaimed an anthem, and for me, it still is. I could recognize that although the place I was in was dark, it was not eternal, and that at some point the skies would lighten and the dawn would break, because there is that next day, and the opportunity to be another of the million different people – a better one.