Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 32)
“My first view - a panorama of brilliant deep blue ocean, shot with shades of green and gray and white - was of atolls and clouds. Close to the window I could see that this Pacific scene in motion was rimmed by the great curved limb of the Earth. It had a thin halo of blue held close, and beyond, black space. I held my breath, but something was missing - I felt strangely unfulfilled. Here was a tremendous visual spectacle, but viewed in silence. There was no grand musical accompaniment; no triumphant, inspired sonata or symphony. Each one of us must write the music of this sphere for ourselves.”
- Charles Walker, American Astronaut
Richard Ashcroft must have sh*t himself when he finally put those words together. If there's a two-word summary of everything the guy had been pursuing as the front man of The Verve for the last decade, that’s it. His guitar shot epics, pulsing and running thick with universal emotion, had already reached a couple thousand Brits, all he needed was that breakthrough that would reach the world. And boy, did he ever pull it off. “Bittersweet Symphony” is one of those songs, like “Imagine” before it and “Hey Ya!” after it, that belongs to everyone. It’s unabashedly epic without ever feeling over the top. It lingers at the highest mountaintop a song can reach before tumbling into empty sentiment. “Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony, this life, try to make ends meet, you’re a slave to money then you die.” Geez, how’s that for an opening lyric? As crushingly depressive that reads on paper it becomes a realistic, and somehow optimistic, statement for the ages when relayed over that endless string loop, that folds back on itself in infinity. But “Bittersweet Symphony” is one of the rare songs where the percussion is actually more enrapturing that the melody, it’s the sound of industrial machinery reorganized and made beautiful. This song doesn’t belong on radios; it belongs in the headphones of astronauts.
If Urban Hymns
sounds a little underwhelming at first in the wake of that song, its understandable. With every song built around acoustic guitar with very little experimentation the album sounds very vanilla at first and gets exhausting around the halfway point. But that’s the beauty of Urban Hymns
. It’s the sound of a band that knows exactly what they do extremely well and proceeding to hit that sweet spot for over an hour. I knew it had clicked with me when I woke up one morning with every single song stuck in my head at the same time.
If there is a problem with “Bittersweet Symphony”, it’s that it’s too huge to belong to anything, including this album. Wisely, Ashcroft doesn’t try to replicate the planet encompassing majesty of that song once on the rest of Urban Hymns
. Instead, Ashcroft focuses on expanding little things, making the micro macro. In his hands tiny moments like “when the morning breaks” or “looking through her red box of memories” become epic events of all encompassing importance. In many ways, Ashcroft is pursuing the same goals the Gallaghers were pursuing on their own universal pop album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?
, but instead of strip mining 60s icons, Ashcroft finds greater success drawing inspiration from gospel music. Many of his refrains could have been lifted directly from worship songs (“Can you comfort me?” “They’ll be no better day to save me” “Can you hear this beauty in life?” “Rise straight through the line”) while epic rave ups like “The Rolling People” and “Come On” find Ashcroft ranting like a preacher in the throes of the holy ghost.
If you’ve had three guitar lessons in your life, you can play the chords to almost any song here. “A-E-G-D” You just learned the verses to “Space in Time”. “A-E-D” You just learned “Velvet Morning”, the whole song. Every song on Urban Hymns
is build on basic chords, but this serves a dual purpose. By utilizing familiar chords it furthers the universal idea and it functions as a blank canvas for guitarist Nick McCabe to paint in rich, vibrant tones. His lead guitar lines traverse the edges of the mix before finding a rivet to fit in and blasting off for the stratosphere. “Catching the Butterfly” churns a tightly gripped groove while McCabe is free to roam the forest while “Neon Wilderness” forsakes structure entirely as McCabe drips hallucinatory tones all over the mix. And on “The Rolling People”, which starts at 10 and stays there for 8 glorious minutes, he’s allowed to bring the thunder for the duration. But his interstellar wanderings are always in service to the songs, they never distract from the atmosphere of the piece, only contribute.
I don’t know the exact mechanics of space suits but I think we can reward those brave enough to venture into the great void of space with a little music. I cant think of a better album for watching our blue world turn from above than The Verve’s stellar Urban Hymns
. Every song is as graceful as a cloud of steam and tender as the falling snow but glow with the confidence of someone who has learned from his mistakes. Aside from the clumsy “This Time”, there isn’t a bad song on Urban Hymns
, most of them are transcendental. For those of us that can't afford a space walk, listen to it in the morning, just as the sun creeps over the horizon.