The wounds sustained from making A Northern Soul would eventually destroy the band.
When A Northern Soul came out, it was a shocking disappointment. Upon first listen, it sounded formless and listless: the songs thrashed around in an effort to find solid footing, the lyrics felt maudlin (and downright cringe-worthy in many cases), the performances loose (or sloppy depending on your biases), and the sound distorted and blown out. Yet repeated listens over the years allow the listener to get past the more obvious flaws and reveal the music to be vital and powerful, like the band couldn’t quite scratch an itch but were scrabbling away furiously anyway. At any moment, it feels like the music might bust out of the speakers leaving charred black embers burning intently on the living room floor. A Northern Soul is an absolute mess of an album that nonetheless remains compulsively listenable nearly 25 years after its release.
Perhaps A Northern Soul was initially disappointing because it sounded so different from everything else in the Verve discography. Lead singer Richard Ashcroft, bassist Simon Jones, drummer Peter Salisbury and guitarist Nick McCabe had up to this point created music that was ethereal and atmospheric. The Verve’s stunning debut A Storm In Heaven washed over the listener, with no single component overwhelming the mix. It’s chilly, distant music meant to cover you in goosebumps. Producer Owen Morris leaves all of that behind on A Northern Soul choosing a raw, loud and fiery veneer instead. The album starts in media res, fading up on a meandering jam that soon gives way to blasting guitars, crashing drums and Ashcroft’s emotionally raw voice atop it all, unencumbered by reverb and delay. Throughout the album, the drums are thick and present, the bass dry but fat and the guitars turned up to 11. McCabe even uses a wah pedal to fascinating effect on the title track. These changes are initially distracting and off-putting. Once you get past those surface differences, you can really hear the band pushing itself to the limits to make the music it hears in its collective unconscious.
The result is the sound of a band bursting apart right before our ears. Like a heavenly body careening through the atmosphere on its way back to earth, A Northern Soul smolders at the edges, the deep brown, orange, and sepia white color scheme of the album cover a perfect visualization of the music within. It’s raw music for raw emotions as the Verve have now become a band with SOMETHING TO SAY. Just look at the song titles: “On Your Own,” “No Knock on My Door,” “Stormy Clouds” and “History.” Ashcroft wears his heartbreak on his sleeve with aggressively forlorn lyrics like, “Teenage tears sting my eyeballs/ In a town where I wasn’t born” on album opener “A New Decade.” Or the howlingly bad “Life’s an ocean/ Too much commotion/ Too much emotion/ Dragging me down” on the otherwise outstanding “Life’s an Ocean.” He sounds like a sad-sack drunk stuck telling the same tales of woe over and over. It’s really all a bit much and threatens to overwhelm the music in places. In retrospect, however, it’s hard to doubt that Ashcroft really is miserable on this album. He would spend the rest of his post-Verve career trying (and failing) to recapture that same level of honesty.
The recording sessions were notoriously rife with problems (Ashcroft described the sessions as “insane in ways that only good music, bad drugs and mixed emotions can make”) as the band tried in vain to corral their various impulses. Previous music was born mostly through in-studio jam sessions that the band would pare down to create songs, an intense and difficult way to write music and a process the four members hoped (and ultimately failed) to avoid. The album dabbles in more straightforward songwriter fare as on the syrupy, Ashcroft-penned ballad “History,” but the meandering jam-songs rule the album. The tension between the band members inevitably comes through in the music, and is likely that indescribable component of the listening experience that makes the album still fascinating after all this time.
The wounds sustained from making A Northern Soul would eventually destroy the band. The Verve officially broke up before the final single from the album was released. Despite eventually reforming and taking the world by storm with Urban Hymns, the embedded shrapnel from A Northern Soul would eventually find its way to the fore. The fact that the band would finally achieve their long sought after success and still break up emphasizes the damage taken on during the making of A Northern Soul. That they could make something as messy as A Northern Soul so compelling to listen to over two decades later is a testament to the power of The Verve.