Worst Albums Of All Time: The Verve – ‘Urban Hymns’

Welcome to our first ever guest blog post courtesy of Rory, one of the main men behind the excellent Guerrilla Geek site. Read on as he shows us up with his “researched back story” and “carefully thought out points”. Those things will never catch on.

The Verve - Urban HymnsIn September 1997, The Verve released what would become their biggest album ever. Urban Hymns became one of the best-selling albums of the year, earning nearly-unanimous critical praise, and has since regularly gained respectable placements on British “greatest albums of all time” media lists. Normally, I can simply shake my head at the vagaries that lead to such an album gaining a legacy like this, but in the case of Urban Hymns, I’m left with one nagging fact that prevents me from moving on: the album is a bad album.

Now, I don’t mean a bad album in a Steps-this-music-is-so-tacky-it’s-almost-acceptable kind of way; Urban Hymns fails at a fundamental level, namely that it feels as though it squanders any potential it may have had during its conception. Instead of becoming an album rich with passion and style, it commits the cardinal sin of sounding like a bland, paint-by-numbers affair. In order to understand where this album fell flat, one must understand The Verve’s background leading up to Urban Hymns.

The Verve, originating from Wigan, had been around since 1990 and started developing an early reputation for their psychedelic textures and avant-garde sensibilities. While they weren’t commercially successful, they did have huge indie cred and performed well on the indie charts. During this time, they released two well-received albums — A Storm in Heaven and A Northern Soul — and battled a number of physical and emotional problems, including the ever-present spectre of “The Verve Voodoo” (their own bad luck fairy). This overload led to the band temporarily breaking up in 1995, with them reuniting for the writing and recording of Urban Hymns.

By this stage, the band had a reputation as “one of the tightest knit, yet ultimately volatile bands in history” (Filter Magazine). Indeed, the recording of A Northern Soul was reportedly a highly intense affair, with members of the band being in an emotional dark place, combined with the stress of trying to pull the album together through late-night jam sessions. However, this space that the band were in led to some stunning music that throbbed with pathos and raw feeling while encompassed with distinctive aural textures.

When The Verve reunited to record Urban Hymns, producer Youth (Martin Glover) was brought on board and immediately set about to bring structure and discipline to the band’s recording process. With the physical and mental extravagances of the past curtailed, the band was able to knuckle down and bring together the album’s tracks. However, something about this approach seems to have stifled the band’s ability to emote their soul through their music. Youth himself admitted that the band’s lead, Richard Ashcroft, felt a bit claustrophobic about the disciplined manner that they followed.

When you compare the songs of Urban Hymns to their past work, The Verve loses a lot of what made them so distinctive. Gone are the gnarly psychedelic textures, gone is the raw emotion of the vocals, gone is the feeling that this band has suffered for their art. Taking the frustration and intensity out of their writing process has stripped the colour from their music, and what we are left with is a feeling that the band followed a checklist.

Urban Hymns starts off pretty promising; the opening refrains of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” capture the listener, however, this may be due more to The Rolling Stones’ contribution rather than The Verve. After the song cycles through another rinse-and-repeat verse/chorus combo and begins repeating lyrics, I find myself thinking about shopping lists and the like. If the song didn’t have the Stones’ sample and the snappy video (a pale pastiche of the video for Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Symphony”), I have to wonder if the song would have had the legs that it did.

After “Bitter Sweet Symphony”, the album settles into a comfort zone of average, indistinguishable songs — the only difference seemingly being a few notes and the lyrics. Ashcroft’s vocals, full of emotion in the past, become a passionless drone; even when singing about death and lost love, he manages to sound quite bored about the whole thing. The music unfortunately just plods along, unable to lift Ashcroft’s laconic vocals, and by halfway through the album, you feel like you’re stuck in a musical rut.

At the end of the day, Urban Hymns is an album that the band shot themselves in the foot on (oh wait, that actually might’ve improved it). The Verve were unable to recapture the emotive power of their past albums, and ended up producing an album that could’ve been something wonderful. Instead, we are left with an album full of beige that is near-impossible to get excited about. The passionless tone of the album becomes a depressive affair — the urban hymns become funeral hymns.

Find out where The Verve – ‘Urban Hymns’ ranks in our Worst Albums Of All Time Chart.


About Rory

Rory is a mostly-harmless Wellingtonian who's not as young as he used to be. A natural born cynic, music snob, and opinionated mediaphile, he should not be disturbed before his morning coffee. Often found pottering around the dark recesses of post-rock. Hook up with Rory's listening habits on last.fm, or tweet him up on @Nightwyrm.
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21 Responses to Worst Albums Of All Time: The Verve – ‘Urban Hymns’

  1. Mike says:

    The great thing about this review is that I didn’t agree with you before I read it, but by the time I got to the end I was (mostly) in concurrence. I like your points about the first two albums too – especially A Storm In Heaven, that was a great album, but light years from what they would become later on.

    Just out of interest, have you heard their 2008 album “Forth” where they reunited for a second time? Because it is arguably nowhere near as good as Urban Hymns, whether you like the latter or not.

  2. Rory says:

    Thank you for letting me play :-). I haven’t actually checked out Forth — I fear that Urban Hymns had tainted The Verve for me. Besides, after an album like that, it’s a good likelihood that any consecutive album will be highly wanky.

  3. Mike says:

    No worries man! Feel free to post on here any time!

    And here’s a special treat for you. It is indeed quite wanky, but not quite as bad as I remembered. Interestingly, the rest of the band are nowhere to be seen:

  4. Dan says:

    I always thought of Urban Hymns as ‘two albums’ – the singles (which were by an large shitty sing-a-long ballads like ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ and ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ (though, The Drugs Don’t Work did lead me to coming up with, possibly the most hilarious change of song lyrics ever in ‘The drugs don’t work / they just make you worse / but I know you’ll gurn your face again’) and half way decent songs like Velvet Morning and Chasing a Butterfly (which is by the numbers psychedelica but still, in my mind, a solid tune).

    I think this album was even more disproportionately popular in New Zealand because it’s release, and specifically the release of Bittersweet Symphony, coincided with the launch of British MTV. A lot of those immediately post-Brit-pop albums (The Prodigy’s ‘Fat of the Land’ and its associated singles being an even better example, but also Oasis’ ‘Be Here Now’) I always felt were disproportionately popular than their predecessors because of the launce of British MTV in 1997.

  5. Joe Mahoney says:

    I remember those first few weeks of MTV quite well. That Bittersweet riff was used in almost every sting.

  6. felix deluxe says:

    Like Mike, I was doubtful at the top but by the end I’d realised how right you are.

    And then I remembered some of the stuff from “side 2” of Forth being quite good so I dialled it up to find I didn’t really like that either.

    The more I think about it the more I think I don’t really like them at all. How did I not notice this before?

    • Dan says:

      Forth is a much much better album, but then I think it is better than A Northern Soul which fans credit as The Verve’s apex.

      My favourite is still, without a doubt, a Storm in Heaven – I think on that alone you’d have a tough time syainf they were shit.

  7. Dr J Flieshman says:

    It’s always the same:
    Someone claims the undiscovered country as a true nugget, the popular stuff then must be shit.
    Horseshit.
    I’ve purchased the double vinyl 17 years after its first release, and it’s better than ever.
    The first 3 release were magic, no doubt. I had then all as they came down. No come down here. Urban Hymns is mythical. It’s a last gasp before adulthood, ego, and sobriety poison the well. It’s a prayer before dying.i like that sound as the soul turns to rust.
    You can’t make a career out of re-recording a Northern Soul.
    You can’t make anything out of anything else.
    You can’t make me feel like you feel.

    “..there is no time for cracking up/ believe me friend.”

  8. seane says:

    Once you understand the theory of relativity you will quit wanking with words about music Rory and will never be a self proclaimed snob ever again, and laugh about the time wasted on bullshit that never mattered.Until then rock on Rory

  9. seane says:

    and write grammatically incorrectly in all of your sentences and still keep writing and saying and way to much and as if it matters, unless you are what others think about you, and then you could be fake and on and on. Sip it up Rory yer brews getting cold lad

    • Mike says:

      What the fuck does any of that even mean? It’s great that they let you out of the home from time to time, but someone with that serious of a brain injury should really be under constant care.

  10. Mr.Kev says:

    Sorry, but if someone is thinking about Urban Hymns as ‘worst album of all time’, he is for me a candidate for a mental hospital.

  11. jdaydreamer says:

    “There’s always someone–somewhere with a big nose who knows…..”

  12. Pete Canterbury says:

    Jerusalem is where Richard Ashcroft wrote most of the lyrics to Urban Hymns, after meeting a fakir who told him if he didn’t split the band again he would die.

  13. tintong says:

    fucking click bait shite, go fuck yourselves

  14. ZONKO says:

    Saying UH is one of the worst albums ever is just looking for attention. Nonsense. Be here now is much worse than it.

    But IMO it’s easy to track the downward spiral of the Verve’s Music and it’s clearly aligned with Ashcroft’s ego. The lyrics become all wanky and dull, but it’s the drumming that coincides with slide downward.On all the shite songs, it’s always a simple uninspiring beat. It started with Lucky Man on UH and continued until they split. For example, you can hear it on the list of these songs below and in nearly all of Ashcroft’s Solo guff.

    This could be my moment (possibly the worst song I’ve ever heard)
    Valium Skies
    Rather Be
    Appalachian Springs
    I See Houses

    Like most good bands, they were better in their youth and better when the members were having personal issues. Equally could be said of Radiohead, whose output was much better when Thom was going through tough times.

    Anyhow, this is clearly not one of the worst albums ever – get yer head outta the sand, boy

  15. Red Cat says:

    Another millennial twat wants to educate us about our own music. You’ve missed about 75% of the reason why UH was actually a historic album. It’s because it came at the perfect moment for a whole world of starry eyed losers and punch drunk lovers to hear it as they realized that getting “loved up” on Ecstacy or K was no substitute for love. It was the soundtrack to a whole generation of lonely souls making one last mad dash towards a millennium, that still seemed at the moment, like a promising future. It was songs for people looking for connection without a smart phone. Looking within.
    Sometimes you just had to be there. Rory wasn’t there.

  16. figurehead says:

    Interesting article although for the most part I disagree, to class this as one of the worst albums of all time is doing it a disservice.

    As much as a bias I have as being a huge Killing Joke fan, I am not a massive fan of the production work that Youth has done, I personally think it has more to do with the fact the band were not functioning as equals for the first time rather than being directly affected by Youth’s approach…also remember he did not produce the whole album, Chris Potter did half, and those were wrote when McCabe was back in the band and the band as a unit.

    Youth went through the process of initially recording the Ashcroft compositions with Simon Tong on guitar (later filled out with McCabe guitarwork) the problem I feel lies with Ashcroft…like with the album ‘Forth’ there were a number of songs penned by him, stifling the classic Verve sound into a far more pedestrian middle of the road rock sound.

    Which is fine if you like that sort of thing, for all the criticisms of Ashcroft, he can pen a well crafted MOR tune, but most certainly his compositions are clearly evident on both the last two Verve albums. You only have to listen to the likes of “Sonnet”, “Drugs Don’t Work”, “Rather Be”, “I See Houses” which would not sound out of place on any solo Ashcroft album, in comparison to the likes of “Catching The Butterfly”, “Rolling People”, “Come On”, “Judas”, “Noise Epic”.

    Both the latter two albums are 6 of one half a dozen of the other, match The Verve compositions and Ashcroft ones and you would have two solid albums in either direction, one thing is clearly evident though, the divide particularly between McCabe and Ashcroft in their musical direction, and at times on Ashcroft composed songs like “Valium Skies”, “Appalachian Springs”, “Weeping Willow” things are not half bad when McCabe is not that suppressed.

    There were only three (album track) Ashcroft compositions prior to the last two albums, “See You In The Next Life”, “On Your Own” and “History”, which in my view were all solid. Certainly the MOR leanings later on would propel the band to more commercial success rather than artistic, and whilst I personally hold dear that artistry on both the early EPs and the rather wonderfully Leckie produced “A Storm In Heaven”, I find it a disservice to say “Urban Hymns” is one of the worst albums of all time, artistically speaking it’s not their best. A more commercial leaning yes, well crafted dad rock yes, amidst a few tunes that nod towards the band firing on all cylinders.

  17. Chris says:

    Guess the writer is a bit jealous. To have people come up to you and go ‘that song was played at my wedding, my dads funeral’ etc must mean a lot – as would definitely happen with songs like bittersweet symphony or the drugs don’t work. Whereas Rory is a keyboard warrior with what kind of legacy?

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