September 9th 2017. Wigan-based rockers The Verve released an album that would not only shape the future of the rock genre, but also be hailed one of the greatest British albums of all time. Whilst hindsight often makes the once cutting-edge appear mediocre, twenty years down the line ’Urban Hymns’ retains the same musical power and critical acclaim as when it was first released.
From humble beginnings as a collection of 6th form students with a passion for psychedelic and experimental music, the early 90s played a vital role in the development of The Verve’s characteristic brand of music. From changes in line-up, to break-ups, to commercially unsuccessful releases, to narcotic dependencies, they seemed unable to achieve their desired impact on the musical world. One of the most striking things about The Verve is the band’s strikingly eclectic mixture of influences. From The Stooges, to Nick Drake, to Funkadelic, no genre is left untouched. It seems fitting therefore, that ‘Urban Hymns’ has a unique style encompassing a multitude of genres including indie, rock, Britpop, and dream pop. Nonetheless, the album manages to pay homage to the band’s earlier roots in psychedelia throughout.
Undeniably, the album’s most iconic track is ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’. The string-led riff is arguably one of the most recognisable of the decade. It seems fitting that the song chosen to kick-off ‘Urban Hymns’ was also the centre of a lawsuit. Featuring samples from the Andrew Oldham Orchestra’s take on ‘The Last Time’, and heavily influenced by Rolling Stones’ song of the same title, The Verve claimed that they had reached a license to use a section of the Oldham recording. However, former Stones manager Allen Klein argued that the licence had been breached by the band. The resulting lawsuit concluded with The Verve relinquishing all royalties for the track. Vocalist Richard Ashcroft infamously commented on the situation:
“This is the best song Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years”
Following on from the grandiosity of ‘Bittersweet Sympathy’, ‘Sonnet’ is a softer, almost ballad-esque, portrayal of melancholia. Drenched in elegant riffs and desperate vocals, this tender edge is mirrored in later song ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’, cementing the two tracks as stand-out songs.
Delving into the band’s psychedelic past, ‘Catching the Butterfly’ seems to be portraying the blurred lines between reality and memory. Featuring a heavy dream-pop stylistic element, surprisingly heavy undertones give a beautifully layered finish to one of the most underrated songs on the album. The acid-soaked atmosphere created seamlessly passes into ‘Neon Wilderness’, which conjures an immersive dreamscape for the listener to lose themselves to.
‘Space and Time’ and ‘Weeping Willow’ see a return to catchy alt-rock, before the incredible beauty of ‘Lucky Man’. With an almost Dylan-like streak to the song, Ashcroft proves himself as a phenomenal songwriter. From the delicate riff, to the resigned passion of the vocals, to the subtle climactic build, every aspect of this song is perfectly placed, arguably making it one of the greatest songs of the decade.
Progressing onto the more subdued ‘One Day’, the acid house-inspired ‘This Time’ and the relaxed macabre tones of ‘Velvet Morning’, ‘Urban Hymns’ continues to meld genre together throughout its remainder. Determined to end on a high, the album concludes with ‘Come On!’ and ‘Deep Freeze’, a fusion of funk and Britpop resulting in an electrifying and anthemic finale to an undeniably classic album.
The influence of the ground-breaking album is still felt today, with bands such as Oasis, Smashing Pumpkins and even Coldplay citing The Verve as hugely musically influential. With people younger than the album able to cite its lyrics by heart, and vinyl LPs still in high demand, this is an album that will remain relevant for many years to come.