Urban Hymns

The Verve

Virgin Music, 1997

REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy


When you open your album with one of the best opening tracks of all-time, you are setting yourself up. Audiences may put that particular track on "repeat" or "rewind," depending on your mode of music. Then, when they are eventually tired of it, the album heads to the used bin of a record store or gathers dust in a CD collection.

That's the case for The Verve's final in-studio album, Urban Hymns. The album opens with "Bittersweet Symphony," and while the song pretty much thieves the Rolling Stones (to the point where they had to pay virtually all of their royalties of that song to the band), the Verve's version is arguably superior to the Stones. The song weaved its way into Nike commercials and due to the U.S. interest in Brit-pop music at that time with Oasis and Blur, The Verve was able to capitalize on some of that success.

"Sonnet," the next song, doesn't do much to keep the listener's ear: It's a nice song overall, but unlike "Bittersweet Symphony," it takes a few listens to set in. I admit, I didn't listen to Urban Hymns in its entirety until last week, and I have owned this CD since 1997. But it took almost six years to discover the best way to listen to this album: on a dreary Sunday afternoon, on your couch and with the remote far out of hand's reach so you have no choice but to absorb the entire album in one listen.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Most of the other tracks on Urban Hymns have the same longing, resigned, defeated feel of "Bittersweet Symphony" and their lesser-known hit, "The Drugs Don't Work." The song "The Drugs Don't Work" is said to be either about Ashcroft's own struggles with drug addiction or losing his father. But there's no sense in digging for meaning about the song: the lyrics are fairly straightforward and the orchestration is so achingly beautiful that you can't help but feel the line, "like a cat in a bag, waiting to drown" to the marrow.

If Oasis owe homage to the Beatles, The Verve owe homage to the '60s era in general. Urban Hymns is awash in psychedelic landscapes. This is especially evident on "Catching the Butterfly." After the emotional lows expressed in "The Drugs Don't Work," "Catching the Butterfly" has an airy, spacey vibe that provides a much-needed lift to the listener.

For those looking for a "morning after hangover" album, Urban Hymns definitely has more downbeat moments. Lyrics fit for the best of breakup letters ("We have existence and that's all we share," from "Space and Time" and "One day, maybe I will dance again," from "One Day") liberally scatter the album. Ashcroft's romanticism and sad lyrics intersect perfectly in the song, "Velvet Morning," a song that should be required to be played in coffee houses at least once on Sunday mornings.

Much has been ballyhooed about Ashcroft's voice, and justifiably so. However, the band is able to provide some of the most moving elements to Urban Hymns. Peter Salisbury's drumming is neither overpowering nor is it just background noise. And Nick McCabe cements his status at being one of the best lead guitarists in music after Urban Hymns.

Internal drama imploded The Verve after the recording of Urban Hymns. The band broke up before the album was recorded, but in 1999, the band said this time was definite. With this CD, The Verve were placed alongside such other classics as Oasis' (What's the Story) Morning Glory? and Blur's Parklife. And though Oasis and Blur are still chugging away, it is admirable that The Verve opted to quit at their artistic peak. The band shouldn't have to worry about additional royalties from this album. As long as hangovers, personal identity crisis and breakups exist, there will be a need for Urban Hymns.

Rating: A-

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© 2003 Sean McCarthy and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Virgin Music, and is used for informational purposes only.