We at Niche Appeal headquarters are just as chuffed as the next bloke that Sir Mick and Keef, in a heartening display of twilight years empathy, have finally allowed the “Bittersweet Symphony” rights to slip from their jaundiced grip and back into the deserving Court Of The Gangling King, His Majesty Richard Ashcroft. Well deserved, mate, and may you forever cash in on an endless series of luxury vehicle commercials. But what this “victory of the common man” scenario fails to erase is the inconvenient fact that “Bittersweet Symphony” is noticeably one of the lesser tracks on The Verve’s truly epic and excellent 1997 classic Urban Hymns, and very well may be worst track on the album.
I haven’t heard “Bittersweet Symphony” in decades even though UH is one of my all time most cued-up records. The only thing I’ve ever liked about the song is that it’s the first track on the record, which makes it easy to skip and kick things off with true opener “Sonnet”. So what is it about this eternally popular song that makes it such a poor representation of an otherwise marvelous band? Sure, you have that bracing string section, you know the one, stolen straight from the 1965 symphonic rendition of The Stones’ “The Last Time” (sorry but they did steal it), but the song itself lands quite low on The Verve’s very high song quality totem. It is rote and depressingly realist where their real wheelhouse is dreamily romantic escapism. Try to find a lyric as working class sad sack as “you’re a slave to the money, then you die” anywhere else in their catalog. You won’t. And then there’s a chorus that sounds so phoned in you can almost hear the “end of the session” lines being chopped out on the consul as Ashcroft belts it. Plus it has absolutely no trace of The Verve’s secret weapon, Nick McCabe’s rolling, slowly unspooling guitar noodlings. The main thing this song accomplished was to pull in an audience that hopefully went on to listen to the other, better, tracks on the record and then went on to check out Northern Soul and A Storm In Heaven while they were at it. But inch-for-inch and pound-for-pound “Bittersweet Symphony”, if it doesn’t outright suck, is indeed a poor representation of one of the very best bands of the past 30 years.
If it’s proof you’re in search of, then look no further than the other tracks on Urban Hymns, any one of which will no doubt shine much brighter than their best known song. Here’s just five of them.
When noted Verve fanatic Noel Gallagher sings a ballad you get the sense he’s just trying to get a quick shag in before meeting his mates down the boozer to watch that Man City test match. When Richard Ashcroft sings a ballad he’s doing nothing less than summoning the faltering angels of unrequited love, slitting open the very vein of existential longing and dancing in the delicious blood all over the track. There might be better examples of this on other Verve albums, but “Sonnet” is the true soul stirrer on Urban Hymns and the best song on the record by many a mile.
“The Drugs Don’t Work”
Right in the “mad for it!” heart of the pro-decadence, drug-drenched DayGlo ’90s, here comes Richard Ashcroft with a harrowing and gorgeous comedown that finds him at his most achingly vulnerable. Richard sounds absolutely weak here, worn all the way through, with his nerve endings right on the surface. It’s tough in these days of lean and Percs and sad boyz to imagine how wonderfully out of place a song like this was at a time when the Gallaghers were proudly blowing rails in the bathrooms at political functions, but thankfully the slow grace and majesty of the track still shines through, making it the second best ballad next to “Sonnet” on Urban Hymns.
“The Rolling People”
In case you were wondering, yes The Verve could fucking rock. Theirs was not the riff-tastic blues-based Stones rock, but instead a sweeping and majestic, but still crunching, supernaturalist sprawl that roooolllllllllllleeeeddddddddd like a shape shifting nebula for seven or eight minutes that still felt much too short. And while there may have been some better examples of this on Northern Soul, if you want to hear a shining example on Urban Hymns just cue up track three, hit that vape hard, and let it roll.
One of the ultimate Verve deep cuts. An urgent song that somehow manages to take its sweet time, with a surprise chorus that doesn’t kick in until almost halfway through. Nick McCabe owns this territory, staking claim to the landscape with bird call string bends and distorted washes of LSD-soaked two-note solos until the whole thing comes crashing down with Ashcroft singing something about a gun under someone’s pillow. The resignation in his voice as he moans, “It was in our hands, from six to ten, it slipped right out again” is so utterly palpable you can envision the dreary East End morning on which he wrote it, surrounding by passed out bodies and empty tallboys in some bird’s apartment before having to cut and run.
Another much-loved deep cut, “Velvet” finds Ashcroft in full-on regret and reflect mode, but with a hopeful edge that rides in on a McCabe Laurel Canyon stutter riff looped throughout the track to hypnotic effect. In their prime, The Verve had a way of making songs lift completely off the ground about halfway through, ending up very far away from where they began, and you can picture them looking to one another in the studio after the fade, wide-eyed and ragged, exclaiming, “Fucking hell, that one took a turn, innit?” This is a textbook example right here, and the part where the chorus unexpectedly and delightfully unrolls on the “He said, don’t you find” line is one of the most breathtaking rushes in a catalog absolutely full of them.
In closing, we send a toast and a congrats to Ashcroft and the Boys for their rightfully earned David Vs. Goliath victory, while urging those who only know the bitter sweetness of the symphony to please delve deeper into this all time great band.