“Bitter Sweet Symphony” Turns 20
The Verve have a lot of great songs. From 1993 to 2008, they released four albums. An always combustible group, the period (for now) in which the Verve were active was punctuated by an abrupt breakup and reunion between 1995’s A Northern Soul and 1997’s Urban Hymns, then another breakup, then another reunion accompanied by 2008’s Forth, and yet another breakup. It’s easy to write them off as one of these ridiculously tumultuous bands sunk by cartoonish rockstar ego. But across those four albums, they released a ton of very underrated music. They delved into heady, heavy psychedelia — the unnerving sort that seemed to result from staring a little too deeply into the cosmos, or a little too deeply inwards — resulting in the hauntingly otherworldly rush of “The Sun, The Sea” or A Northern Soul’s gnarly, mad-eyed title track. They had big, warped anthems like “Slide Away” and “A New Decade” that made them sound like U2’s young, brooding stepbrother. There were moments of heartbreaking beauty and pseudo-respite amongst it, like the one-time swan-song single “History.”
All those songs were just from their first two albums, from before the first breakup and subsequent reunion ahead of Urban Hymns. And the lead single for that album is what changed everything about the Verve’s story. They have a lot of great songs from before that album, from that album, and even afterwards, from the surprisingly strong Forth. (In that particular interim, frontman Richard Ashcroft had released a couple tepid solo records.) But one song in particular overshadows all of it: “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” which was released as a single 20 years ago today, three and a half months ahead of Urban Hymns.
There are a handful of practical reasons “Bitter Sweet Symphony” looms large over the Verve’s career. Their earlier records had never made them a pop success, but the infectious prettiness they suddenly presented here led the charge for their breakthrough in the UK mainstream in the latter days of Britpop. It’s one of their only commercially successful songs Stateside, hitting the Billboard Hot 100 and becoming a staple on MTV, later woven into the decade’s pop culture via its use at the end of 1999’s Cruel Intentions.
Then there was the lawsuit. One of the key elements of “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” that string loop — that’s a sample from the Andrew Oldham Orchestra version of the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time.” It’s all a bit convoluted and each side has, obviously, represented it differently over the years, but the story goes that the Verve acquired the rights to use six seconds of the string part, and then former Stones manager Allen Klein (who owned and controlled the copyrights from that era of the Stones) claimed they used too much of the track. It comes across like an old guy who was once in the game seeing a money-grab opportunity, and that’s essentially how it went, with the Verve having to change the writing credits, and with Andrew Loog Oldham and Klein getting an easy payday out of a song that sounds nothing like “The Last Time” or the Stones in general.
So, this yields the paradox of “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” At the same time that it made the Verve — increasing their stature while exposing a whole new side of what their music could be — it also undid them. The drama of it all was functionally destructive to the song and band’s resepctive legacies, but its sheer stature has also mostly destroyed the chance for the rest of the Verve’s work to get much recognition unless you really want to go looking for this stuff. On one hand, you can’t argue with the numbers, and there are ways that “Bitter Sweet Symphony” makes the Verve look like a one-hit wonder, despite the quality and adventurousness of their work otherwise vs. the kind of one-hit wonders who truly have one good song and are otherwise garbage. But on the flipside of that, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” is also their best song.
As far as reintroductions go, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was an emphatic one. The acoustic gentleness and confessional vulnerability of “History” had been an outlier during the Verve’s initial run. “Bitter Sweet Symphony” introduced a new iteration of the band that sounded more like that than it did any other pre-existing Verve material. Gone was the depressive drugginess, and all the aqueous guitars to lose yourself in. Instead, there was that string sample, a hook you couldn’t shake. There was that sprightly appropriation of a trip-hop beat, steadily catapulting the song forward. Ashcroft’s voice was clear and a focal point, singing lyrics that might’ve come from similar spaces as before, but touched a resolution and universality that would’ve previously been foreign in the Verve’s insular world. ??The lyrics are actually another thing that echo a certain era of U2 and Bono in particular — on “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” Ashcroft sort of sings from a personal narrative, but mixes it in with grand statements about life, and conveys it in a way that’s broad and relatable. Its first line (and the first line of Urban Hymns) is “‘Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony, this life/ Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to money then you die.” It’s not the most profound or life-altering sentiment; the “then you die” kicker in particular should come across like a punchline. But the power of Ashcroft’s still-young voice, and his delivery, and the swirling, evocative music he surrounds himself in, is all just so damn convincing. Especially if you come across this song for the first time when you’re young, without any context of who the Verve were, it can seem like a powerful idea.
Or, perhaps, the more sophomoric lines are saved by the chorus: ??”No change, I can’t change, I can’t change, I can’t change?/ But I’m here, in my mold, I am here in my mold/ ?But I’m a million different people from one day to the next/ ?I can’t change my mold.” ??On their own, some of those lyrics skew generic, too. But again, Ashcroft’s delivery of them gives it so much power — his repetition of words and phrases in the chorus become percussive, a rhythmic catchiness dueling with a slightly intensified return of the string part. And there’s something poignant about it relative to the Verve’s other work. So much of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” and the album it introduced found the Verve, or at least Ashcroft, in a better place than before — here or in “Lucky Man” or “The Drugs Don’t Work,” there’s a sense of reckoning, of knowing yourself, of making peace with certain aspects of your life. But the emotions of that chorus are surprisingly frenetic: I can’t change, I’m here in my mold, but I’m also a million different people from one day to the next. There’s a push-pull, the feeling of settling into your identity and your life, vs. the desire to transcend that and be constantly evolving, vs. the search for a stable understanding, vs. the urge to upend anything that could let complacency fester.
“Bitter Sweet Symphony” is one of those songs that hardly changes its course as it goes on and yet feels like a journey by the time it ends. That same beat rides underneath everything, almost danceable, not quite insistent but possessing the kind of forward momentum of days idly tumbling along into weeks and months. In this sense, its video was the perfect accompaniment. It famously features Ashcroft walking down a London street, unwavering, striding toward the camera for much of it, pausing only to stare at himself in a tinted car window as the “million different people” line hits. Given Ashcroft’s persona being that of the quintessentially arrogant British rockstar, it’s a little goofy or irritating, this guy bumping into people on the street constantly, knocking a woman over, climbing onto the hood of someone’s car and then ignoring her protests for half a minute. But taken with the song’s arc, there’s a nice symbolism to it, too — a ferocious, individual search in some kind of direction, as life dizzyingly unfolds around you.
Part of the reason that “Bitter Sweet Symphony” marked such a stylistic departure for the band is that it was one of many Urban Hymns songs originally intended for an Ashcroft solo album following the Verve’s first breakup. And while the record wound up with a few songs in the mold of earlier, trippier Verve — the loopy floatiness of “Catching The Butterfly,” the stoned twilit drift of “Neon Wilderness,” the weave and climb of “The Rolling People,” the cathartic conclusion of “Come On” — “Bitter Sweet Symphony” definitely served as a harbinger of things to come. The album’s other two well-known songs, “The Drugs Don’t Work” and “Lucky Man,” are an acoustic lament (that was destined for coffeehouse sessions) and a sweeping Britpop ballad respectively. Other highlights like “Space And Time” and “Weeping Willow” found them exploring the anthemic U2-isms that had been previously buried under tons of effects-drenched guitars and grunginess in their music. This time, they sound like songs U2 could’ve actually written and sung — particularly if you play Urban Hymns alongside U2’s 2000 release All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
This is the other way in which “Bitter Sweet Symphony” signaled both a rebirth and an undoing for the Verve. Original guitarist Nick McCabe was absent for much of the recording of Urban Hymns, and his rejoining the band eventually led to internal strife cropping up once more. Ashcroft was steering the ship now, and there was dissent about the musical direction he’d taken them in. Urban Hymns made the Verve bigger stars than they’d ever been before. It also sowed their destruction, leaving behind hints that some felt, well, maybe, this should’ve remained an Ashcroft record, not a Verve record.
When they returned once more with Forth, there were still examples of Ashcroft’s pop inclinations in the dance-y propulsion and vocal loops of “Love Is Noise,” or in the sweeping balladry of “Valium Skies.” Otherwise, there was a surprising recurrence of the Verve’s earlier sound, with “Noise Epic” and “Columbo” and “Sit And Wonder” all possessing bits of pre-Urban Hymns darkness and psychedelia. Though of course that reunion didn’t stick either, partially because other members began to perceive it as Ashcroft’s attempt to get his solo career back on track, so…there’s a bit of a pattern here. In a way, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was also a signal about where Ashcroft was headed in general, regardless of whether or not he could get the Verve to join him at any given moment. It laid the groundwork for the orchestrated, singer-songwriter lane he’d delve into over the ’00s, but those albums were laden with diminishing returns. Being with the Verve sharpened him as a songwriter and singer.
And there was simply a magnitude he and the band reached with “Bitter Sweet Symphony” and Urban Hymns that neither Ashcroft solo nor another Verve reunion could match. After years of being British musicians off to the side of a blossoming, generation-defining Britpop movement, Urban Hymns was the moment where they joined the party late. In 1997 and 1998, all the big Britpop acts released their complicated, blown-out followups to the seminal albums most listeners qualify as their masterpieces — this was the era of Pulp’s This Is Hardcore and Oasis’ Be Here Now. It was the era’s comedown.
Amidst that, Urban Hymns was a brighter record. It was expansive, and ambitious, and it was an often glistening pop album full of songs you could project yourself into to find all sorts of meaning. Maybe it didn’t quite sound like a Verve record in the same way, but at the same time it felt like this was a destination their story had to reach — coming out of the wilderness, and staking their claim to some part of the decade. “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was the mission statement for all of that, one last big singalong, one last arms aloft moment before the era’s luminaries would slink away into their own corners. Its mix of resurrection (even the tiny, daily ones) and elegy were perfect for that: the beginning of the end at the second beginning for one artist, and a new sound that set the stage for the era’s curtain call.