Urban Hymns still sounds alive and vital 20 years on.
Perhaps the most unexpected victory of 1997, Urban Hymns was born out of the ashes of a decaying Verve. What could have been their last gasp turned into their ultimate triumph, an album with singles so ubiquitous that they still permeate pop culture’s notoriously forgetful psyche 20 years after. That is, of course, a cause for celebration. For a band originally formed on the basis of shoegaze maelstroms and interstellar freak-outs, it was a major step in a different direction. Urban Hymns marked the first instance in which singer Richard Ashcroft was purposely reaching out to the public, presenting more heartfelt and straight forward lyrics in easily accessible, acoustic driven songs.
The contents of Urban Hymns proper have aged gracefully over the past 20 years. While its brand of soft rock balladry was the British chart’s musical du jour for a half decade after the album’s release, it’s a testament to Ashcroft’s songwriting sensibilities that his weeping balladry still packs an emotional wallop. The big hits – the country tinged narcotic plea of “The Drugs Don’t Work” and the more straightforward Britpop regalia of “Lucky Man” – still can illuminate a sea of lighters and flood a pint with salty tears. “Bittersweet Symphony” is, of course, transcendent as always — constant exposure has yet to dull its triumphant swagger and, out of the five varying versions presented in this box set, the original still reigns supreme.
Meanwhile, more muscular explorations like “Come On”’s lurching groove and the pounding Funkadelic riffage of “The Rolling People” highlight a band with an immense sense of rhythm. After all, their debut album, A Storm in Heaven, was more Tago Mago than Definitely Maybe despite Ashcroft’s insistence to the contrary. Therein lies the great conundrum as, while prior album A Northern Soul served more traditional songwriting and exploratory noise jams in equal dollops, Urban Hymns was dominated by Ashcroft’s newly-found love for populist balladry. While a harmonious equality was sometimes concocted in the form of “Catching the Butterfly”’s dubby bass and the stoned drift of “Neon Wilderness,” moments like the melodramatic “Velvet Morning” feel overwrought. Thankfully these moments are few and far between, and, while there are less out and out rockers, the rest of the band wrap themselves tenderly around Ashcroft’s soft rock sensibilities, giving his emotions a hefty sense of purpose.
Underrated session cast-off, “This Could Be My Moment,” shines through sheer melodic joy, but most of the additional tracks on disc 2 and disc 3 contain little for the casual fan. “The Crab” and “So Sister” are typical Ashcroft ballads, though without the spiritual lift found in his more finished products. “Lord I Guess I’ll Never Know” is the schmaltziest of the bunch, even guitarist Nick McCabe’s blissfully atmospheric six string orchestra can’t distract from Ashcroft’s cliched sentiments and a plodding arrangement. It’s telling that full band efforts such as the funky “Echo Bass” and the slide guitar heavy “Three Steps” fare better. It all still sounds a little aimless, especially when compared to the tightly arranged final product, but they serve as interesting glimpses into the band’s dynamics at the time. The real draw here is a wealth of previously unreleased live material. No matter their status, drugged up or beaten down, The Verve were always a storming live prospect, unafraid to dip into heady jams and noisy blasts of feedback. Disc 3 in particular contains ethereal versions pulled from a BBC Evening Session of early career highlights “A Man Called Sun” and “Life’s an Ocean,” their usually tempestuous rhythms reconfigured into subtle and refined offerings.
The vital anger of the man once dubbed “Mad Richard” is more than present on disc 4’s Haigh Hall concert. “Straight to the BBC! No swearing, no smoking,” exclaims Ashcroft, though his admonishment of Vauxhall Cars (“Don’t buy Vauxhall Cars, they’re shit!”) is cut. A now legendary show amongst fans, The Verve brought a hometown crowd of 30,000 to their knees with an evocative and purposeful performance. Acting as their first show in Wigan in five years, they were returning as world conquering heroes, and they sound suitably so. “The Drugs Don’t Work” is particularly soaring, Ashcroft’s vocals both forceful and quavering as if fighting through tears. “It’s about people in love…It’s about you lot making it one of the best days of my life!” Ashcroft is well up for it, and it’s easy to hear why he is still such a commanding presence live. “Come on!” he yells, with the thousands strong crowd roaring back in approval. Appropriately, the band bring it on home with a smashing version of their song with the same name. Disc 5 skips from Haigh Hall’s encore to various extracts of shows at the 9:30 Club, Brixton Academy and Manchester Academy. There are some stonking moments to be had with the tripped rhythms of “Stormy Clouds (and Reprise)” and the beautiful stargazing of “Slide Away,” but it all feels a bit extraneous after the almighty thunder brought about at Haigh Hall. Unsurprisingly, the band would again break up a few months later.
While Urban Hymns may be essential listening material for anyone interested in British rock or, really, ‘90s music in general, this particular reissue is decidedly for the hardcore Verve fan. It is a shame that a band that disbanded at the height of their powers were never really given their fair time in the spotlight. Ashcroft moved on to a solo career of divisive soft rock, soul and funk, and, despite a rapturously received Verve reunion in 2007 that saw them headline Glastonbury, he again decided to dismantle the group. A Gallagher-sized ego may define Ashcroft’s current career, but it also provided the chutzpah needed to deliver one of the most iconic albums in British music history. Rest assured, this reissue only proves how vital and alive Urban Hymns still sounds 20 years on.