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.
In 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.