Few British bands from the 1990s, Britpop or otherwise, have been pushed to the sidelines more forcefully than the Verve. I can think of, well, quite a few reasons for this. You’ve got their singer, Richard Ashcroft, a perfectly arrogant British rock star who continues to play that role even as his solo output has devolved into a mixed bag of adult-contemporary singer-songwriter-isms (the similarities between Ashcroft and Russell Brand’s Aldous Snow character are too striking to be coincidental). Ashcroft doesn’t possess the cartoonish hilarity of the Gallaghers, or the mellowed-out likeability of Damon Albarn, or the bookishly, charmingly avuncular vibe of Jarvis Cocker. Having only released four albums and having broken up three times, the Verve’s statistics are somewhat Spinal Tap-worthy, or at the very least make them Britpop’s answer to Jane’s Addiction. (Which I guess isn’t terrible? But still.) There’s the very simple fact that they are associated with Britpop while actually being quite a bit different tonally and thematically. Where the big three of Oasis, Blur, and Pulp, all grappled directly with topics and images of Britishness, the Verve were always looking pretty much exclusively inward. They sounded like they had more to do with U2 and that they listened to American alternative well before Blur opened up to it. Unfailingly, they sounded very serious, when even Britpop figures as self-inflated as the Gallagher brothers provided punchlines at rapid-fire speed.
Very simply, though, the Verve were never firmly a part of the American conception of the Britpop narrative. Our main pop interaction with the band was a handful of successful singles from 1997′s Urban Hymns, which was the band’s final album for a long time until they released Forth in 2008 (which was actually a good deal better than it had any business being, though it isn’t represented on this list). If you went to college in the last twenty years, you heard some guy playing “Wonderwall” in his dorm room enough that by the time you graduated you were ready to burn everything in sight made of wood as soon as that first chord echoed out. Blur and Pulp both remained relevant for the fact that you can hear their influence in a young indie band every now and then far more than, say, you’d hear the influence of an American contemporary like Pearl Jam or Soundgarden. Even if they don’t know the name Damon Albarn, plenty of American listeners know Gorillaz. None of this happened for the Verve. Inescapably, people remember “Bittersweet Symphony” as “that song that plays at the end of Cruel Intentions,” which, let’s be real, has Ryan Philippe in it. When I mentioned I was revisiting the Verve’s catalog to write a top ten list, a friend quipped: “The Verve have more than one song worth writing about?” which was the exact joke I’d anticipated. He followed it up: “Semi-honest question.”
Quite frankly, that’s why we’re talking about the Verve. Because, somehow, they’ve disappeared a bit, at least for American listeners under a certain age, and the reality is that they have some woefully overlooked music. First and foremost is that if you just hear a few stray Urban Hymnstracks, the Verve come off as a late-’90s pop-rock band. They’re more than that. It depends on how widely you define shoegaze, but their debut A Storm In Heaven is probably one of the unsung works in the genre; or, alternatively, it’s an excellent psychedelic record and an overlooked ’90s classic. When I first got into the Verve, A Northern Soul was my distant least favorite, but my appreciation for it has grown over the years. It’s a harrowing thing of multiple emotional peaks and valleys, often within the same song. It occurred to me that A Northern Soul will turn 20 next year, and probably won’t qualify for the sort of retrospective we’ll bestow on Pulp’s His ’N’ Hers or Blur’s Parklife this week. And, fair enough — the Verve had demonstrably less influence and reach than those bands at the time, only becoming true pop successes with their then-swan song Urban Hymns, and then only really in the UK.
So it’s with some degree of irony that Stereogum’s Britpop Week struck me as the right time to talk about the Verve’s ten best songs. I’m not sure we’d think to write about them at any other time, or that you would’ve thought to listen to them at any other time. They, to a certain degree like Spiritualized, were more so a British band making excellent music that happened to have some similarities with the big, overarching Britpop movement, but weren’t quite part of it themselves. There’s some degree of counter-narrative here: this is one of the great British bands of the ’90s, but they aren’t entirely relevant to the story of Britain in the ’90s. And here are ten of their songs that you should listen to.
10. “The Drugs Don’t Work” (from Urban Hymns, 1997)
To be entirely honest, I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about putting “The Drugs Don’t Work” on this list. It’s never been one of my favorites on Urban Hymns, and I was tempted to write about “Space And Time” or “Weeping Willow” instead. But, in fairness, it seems too major to ignore if we’re considering the Verve’s top ten songs during a week of writing devoted to the legacy of Britpop. “The Drugs Don’t Work” is easily the Verve’s second best-known song, somehow the sort of thing that seems ripe for YouTube covers with people playing an acoustic guitar alone in their room. It was their biggest hit in the UK, garnering them their only #1 on their home country’s Singles Chart. And even though it had nothing to do with Princess Diana, it was released the day after her death and some still associate it with that specific time in England’s history (which, notably, marks one of the moments where the Verve was more directly entangled with mainstream British culture, and thus more “Britpop-ish,” even though it came at the tail end of the Britpop era). Meaning-wise, different corners of the internet will tell you different things: that it’s about a collapsing relationship and the narrator/Ashcroft watching his lover descend into drug abuse, or that it’s about Ashcroft’s experience of watching his father die from cancer. Back when they were touring A Northern Soul, Ashcroft would apparently play the song some nights and would sing “Now the drugs don’t work/ They just make me worse,” instead of the “make you worse” that’d eventually wind up on the record. Given the always-high levels of toxicity that defined the Verve’s camp, it’s not a stretch to interpret “The Drugs Don’t Work” as having a layered meaning, dealing with Ashcroft watching himself go down a certain road but reflecting that experience through having watched others wither away in different circumstances. I still think acoustic balladry was a path of diminishing returns for Ashcroft’s songwriting, and not the Verve’s main strength, but credit where it’s due: This is one of the more important and universally affecting Verve songs out there.
9. “Blue” (from A Storm In Heaven, 1993)
One spring break during high school, I was in Naples, Florida, walking down the street when a late twentysomething guy pulled up to a red light in a black convertible, top down, with “Blue” just absolutely blasting. You’d swear the palm fronds were blowing not because of wind but because of that weird repetitive hissing sound in the song. The moment sort of blew my mind. Here we were in an exceedingly pleasant, condo-dominated landscape most appealing to families with young children and retirees/soon-to-be retirees with vacation homes. Not the sort of place you expect to see a twentysomething dude cruising, turning his music up to obnoxious levels, and playing a forgotten Verve song. At that point, “Blue” was already a touch more than a decade old, and as far as I can remember it was the first and last time I heard a pre-Urban Hymns Verve song in any sort of public space. And it was a little instructive. Maybe it was the cover or the general inscrutability of A Storm In Heaven, but I always considered it a winter album, a thing for bitterly cold rainy days right after all the trees had died, or for snowstorm afternoons. “Blue,” though, was always the outlier, undulating on a persistent groove and adopting a clear “This is the single” structure amongst the more listless textures that otherwise dominated the record. Hearing it down in Florida, surrounded by palm trees and coated in an atmosphere as heavy as (but more humid than) the Verve’s music, made me realize there could be a sensuality to their songs as well. The guy in the convertible had it right: “Blue” would sound great at a party in a swamp.
8. “Gravity Grave” (From Verve EP, 1992)
When it came to representing the Verve EP on this list, it was a toss up between “Gravity Grave” and “She’s A Superstar.” My preferences tend to fall towards the latter, a beautiful slow-burn storm of a track. But the place of “Gravity Grave” amongst the Verve’s catalog feels more crucial. I mean, it was the first song on their debut EP and already they had so much figured out about the sound they’d chase through the Verve’s first two-album run. That delayed bassline, the way Nick McCabe’s layered guitars spiraled and crowded around each other even as the song itself seemed to drift off further into the atmosphere, those ghostly harmonica peels, and the calm, almost incantatory quality of Ashcroft’s vocals in the murkiness of it all: each of these elements laid groundwork for the particular brand of shoegaze psychedelia the band would perfect on A Storm In Heaven and then dirty up on A Northern Soul. You can even hear a little bit of “Gravity Grave” on Urban Hymns: its delay-driven lope pops up in different forms with “Catching The Butterfly” and in the airier sections of “The Rolling People.” Live, the band would stretch it out close to ten minutes, playing it out as meditation as much as ritual. They seemed to understand this was their foundation, an early attempt that immediately captured what this band was about and what they could do.
7. “A New Decade” (from A Northern Soul, 1995)
A Northern Soul has one of the more underrated openings of the ’90s, three very different songs that flow perfectly into each other and get at the whole battered scope of the album. There’s the one-two punch of “A New Decade” and “This Is Music” — a rare example of the Verve rocking out in a more straightforward fashion, and excelling — and then an immediate reprieve in the form of “On Your Own,” which actually could only be considered a reprieve due to its acoustic guitars and pretty melody, because that one’s kind of a heartbreaker, too. “A New Decade,” a totally broken-down version of an anthem, is a fitting beginning. After a fifty second fade-in, the band pulls back a tattered curtain and reveals the world of A Northern Soul. The track is frontloaded with the big melody, churning along in arena-alt fashion for about two minutes before it breaks down into a wandering, building-but-never-quite-cresting outro. The whole thing was a sort of shocking turn after the density of A Storm In Heaven — in hindsight that early Verve stuff had the makings of arena-ready stuff, but it was all smeared. This is different: dried out, brittle, and coarse. It’s as if U2 had pulled a mid-’90s R.E.M. and embraced a darker, more ragged version of themselves born from the alternative movement they had helped influence; the evocation of the title in “A New Decade” could’ve been ripped from the New Adventures In Hi-Fi that U2 never made. The way “A New Decade” drifts off is telling, though. It might feel huge at first, but the refrain of “A new decade…” sounding out halfway through the ’90s drips with irony and desperation. It hints at a desire for a fresh start that feels out of reach, and exposes the world-weariness that runs throughout A Northern Soul.
6. “A Northern Soul” (from A Northern Soul, 1995)
Much like “The Sun, The Sea” functioned on A Storm In Heaven (more on which below), “A Northern Soul” was the dark heart of the album with which it shared a name. Though its position at Track 5 out of a very lengthy 12 doesn’t make it technically the centerpiece, combined with the noisy jam “Brainstorm Interlude” “A Northern Soul” is the gaping wound from which everything on the Verve’s sophomore album emanates. Much of its power is located in the fact that the Verve, even though they were always good for a few unnervingly trippy tracks here and there, never wrote another song quite like this. The sessions for A Northern Soul were a famously fraught, drug-laden experience, and the album’s title track seems to capture the moment where the band had spun out from that and into a beleaguered yet crazed exhaustion. Where McCabe’s psychedelic guitar tendencies usually fell more on the blurry, delay-driven side of things, here he adopted an ugly, blistering wah-assisted sound. On top of that is that piercingly high synth line that intrudes now and then. The first time I heard this song I thought it was a mess. These days the way its off-kilter pieces come together to form a brutally hypnotic whole strikes me as one of the most impressive examples of the Verve’s songwriting and attention to specific qualities of sound. Even after nearly seven minutes, every time McCabe’s guitar belches out that riff or that synth line creeps back, it sounds like something’s being ripped open. “A Northern Soul” is the least pretty maelstrom the Verve ever crafted, but perhaps the most evocative — a pop song as splintered as the mental and emotional states it represents.
5. “Slide Away” (from A Storm In Heaven, 1993)
Speaking of underrated openings and the ’90s, the Verve wrote one of the most quintessentially ’90s-sounding song intros out there with “Slide Away,” the second single from A Storm In Heaven. It has that rumbling bassline courtesy of Simon Jones, the notes seemingly sequenced in a “this precedes a song that strives to be massive,” kind of way. The Verve went in with that quiet verse-loud chorus approach on this one, and accordingly there’s a brief but gratifying guitar entrance before the distortion dies down and McCabe’s guitar takes the role of color and texture through verses where that bass is again dominant. This is one of the moments on A Storm In Heaven that showed the Verve were capable of hooks and big-sounding songs as much as they were adept at crafting beautifully cloudy soundscapes. They hadn’t quite gotten their knack for a chorus yet, though. While the verse melody remains amongst my favorite by the Verve, the dramatic impact of the chorus is mainly reliant on the fact that the guitars build and build and cascade back in on cue. Ashcroft’s voice is fairly buried under it all in those moments, which, considering the song’s called “Slide Away,” is actually appropriate. Much like the other climactic moments on A Storm In Heaven, the final fifty seconds of “Slide Away” promise escape through being overcome. Ashcroft’s voice fights against the growing noise of guitars as they wrap around him, but in the end he takes the song’s advice and lets the currents carry him away.
4. “The Sun, The Sea” (from A Storm In Heaven, 1993)
There are some dark and twisting roads in the Verve’s catalog, but few moments you could categorize as “aggressive.” And then there’s that sudden blast of guitar distortion that opens “The Sun, The Sea,” roaring in right after the last spectral wisps of “A Beautiful Mind” dissipate. It crashes in, you know, like a wave, staying true to half its title and that generally aqueous vibe that dominates A Storm In Heaven. For much of the rest of the album, though, any water-related descriptors would have to do with the fact that they’re the sort of songs characterized by a pretty opacity you want to let wash over you. “The Sun, The Sea,” rather, feels like hanging out in the eye of a hurricane, and then hanging out in the hurricane itself. Everything’s relatively calm for the verses, but there’s always something evidently roiling around the edges of the song. Those verses have an inevitable pull to them, always gesturing headlong into recurring, distorted ruptures of the chorus until the whole thing unravels into a sort of free-jazz-shoegaze coda. It’s gorgeous and haunting and cathartic all at once. The apocalyptic core of A Storm In Heaven, “The Sun, The Sea” is unique amongst the Verve’s other songs. Sure, they’d turn the guitars up elsewhere from time to time, but the guitars of “The Sun, The Sea” are elemental things. Like some of the best psychedelic songs, this hardly sounds like music made by humans, but it does sound like it’s capable of conjuring things beyond us.
3. “Lucky Man” (from Urban Hymns, 1997)
Urban Hymns was my introduction to the Verve, and though I still find it to be a brilliant album, over the years I’ve gravitated more towards their earlier, more psychedelic material. So it’s a bit surprising to find myself here, with a top three songs that come from the opposite end of the Verve’s spectrum. You just can’t argue with “Lucky Man,” though — it’s an infectious, indelible pop song. And there’s a whole lot of narrative power to it, too. After a brief breakup, Ashcroft got the band back together and recorded the sprawling, thirteen tracks that became Urban Hymns, one of the best achievements of Britpop’s final chapter and, I still have to say, the band’s finest work. “Lucky Man” is one of the key tracks here and in their catalog at large, a hit in both the UK (on the Singles Chart) and the US (on the Modern Rock Tracks chart), and the one that Bono said he wishes he’d written. That last quality is telling. With Urban Hymns the Verve mainly abandoned the thick soundscapes they’d previously crafted so well in favor of unabashedly anthemic pop, and more than a few songs bear a melodic influence from bands like U2. “Lucky Man” holds down the preposterously strong third quarter of the album (seriously, “Space And Time” into “Weeping Willow” into “Lucky Man” into “One Day,” is unstoppable) and stands out amongst an album absolutely loaded with memorable hooks. It’s the best one on Urban Hymns, except, you know, that other one, which we’ll get to in a moment.
2. “History” (from A Northern Soul, 1995)
In the hands of many others — including those of an older Ashcroft, and perhaps even the Verve themselves during that second reunion — the string intro of “History” would tip way into the saccharine. This is a dramatic discography, but the strings here outdo a lot of it, managing to be stately and cinematic while also feeling like real pangs of suffering. There’s a lot going on there, perhaps thanks to how the orchestration gets recontextualized throughout the song, providing texture alongside the other elements “History” picks up as it strides along. They swell at all the strategic moments, making the song a sort of perpetual five and a half minute gut punch. That downbeat where Ashcroft begins “Maybe we could find a room”– man, that has to be one of the most crushing moments in the entire Verve canon. And then you can say that about something like half a dozen other little match-ups of just the right vocal delivery, just the right instrumentation or slight uptick in dynamics, that occur throughout “History.” The thing about the song is, as ostensibly sad as the lyrics and instrumentation are, those handclaps and that beat and the way the original string motif returns at the end all feel distantly hopeful, too, even if the ending of the song hints at a journey towards resolution rather than a resolution itself. Amidst all the contortions of A Northern Soul, it does sound like a revery. “History” came out as a single after the band’s first abrupt breakup, and thus takes on an extra wrinkle of resonance. What a perfect way to bow out– a song of incredible loneliness, as melancholic as it is, but ultimately a little triumphant. It’s a hell of a song to end a career with, and if you do decide to release another album two years later anyway, you better have a hell of a song to come back with. And, well…
1. “Bittersweet Symphony” (from Urban Hymns, 1997)
I’m sure there are people who consider this song somewhat of a punchline, given Americans mainly know about the Verve through its use in Cruel Intentions. I’m sure there are people who find its rampant late-’90s sounds and trip-hop beat dated, or the song simply oversaturated. But its placement here was inevitable. There is a reason “Bittwersweet Symphony” is, to some people, the sole lasting bit of the Verve’s legacy: this is an impeccable, immortal pop song. The kind of thing that has a handful of silly lyrics that seem very profound in high school, less so in the ensuing years, and then can be sold to you over again when you’re supposed to be older and jaded just because there’s so much damn conviction behind it. This, I’d submit, is amongst the top five Britpop songs, up there with “Common People” and whatever Blur or Oasis singles you prefer (You can have “Wonderwall” and “Parklife,” but I’ll take “Live Forever,” “Supersonic,” “The Universal,” or “This Is A Low”). It is perhaps the last great anthem Britpop produced in its final days, unless you want to count “Tender” off of Blur’s 1999 album 13, but that feels like something different at that point — an elegy, where “Bittersweet Symphony” is one last sprint, one last gasp. Actually, let’s just call it one of the great ’90s songs, period.
But, also, where did this even come from? Two years earlier the Verve had flared out with A Northern Soul, and the aforementioned brilliance of “History” as their final single. This doesn’t sound like that band. Given, Urban Hymns was comprised partially of material Ashcroft had been preparing for a solo album, but even if that explains some of the sharp sonic differences from prior Verve outings, it’s also important to note just how radically the band’s music had changed tonally. This is what’s great about Urban Hymns, the fact that in hindsight it’s almost as if the band had to reunite to complete a trilogy. Even with all it’s own melancholic moments — and the fact that some of its final lyrics are “This is a big: fuck you! Come on!” — Urban Hymns is the salve to all that preceded it in the Verve’s catalog. “Bittersweet Symphony” kicks all of that off, both as lead single and opening track, letting little glimpses of hope and peace find their way into the world of the Verve. On their previous album Ashcroft pronounced the words “A new decade” as if there was no hope he’d make it to the next one, that the very concept was a fantasy. In 1997, Radiohead would release OK Computer, which grappled with modern and technological anxieties as a new millennium approached. “Bittersweet Symphony,” for once, placed the Verve on the other side of things. As a song, it seems to embody all the optimism for a new beginning that might occur at the turn of a century. Even if it didn’t quite turn out that way, “Bittersweet Symphony” remains a monumental work: one last great affirmation as Britpop came to a close.
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