The Band: Richard Ashcroft (Vocals/Guitar)
Nick McCabe (Guitar)
Simon Jones (Bass)
Pete Salisbury (Drums)
Simon Tong (Guitar/Keyboards)
You know how quite frequently there are albums that absolutely everybody knows one or two songs from? Think Blood Sugar Sex Magik
by The Red Hot Chili Peppers, or All That You Can’t Leave Behind
by U2. These come along quite frequently, and are often maddening to greater fans of the band in question, since suddenly everybody and their parents are singing along to one or two smash hits. It’s not as often though that albums spawn four or so singles, all of which are contenders for the best song of the year. The one that most immediately springs to mind is (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?
; Oasis’s 1995 monster album that encapsulated the spirit of Britpop in less than an hour. Slightly less known, but nevertheless a similar phenomenon, is this album, widely regarded as The Verve’s best. Moving away from the psychedelic jams that had been all over their earlier music, this is an album of indie ballads, which at times seems to be not so much music, as Richard Ashcroft personally stabbing the listener through the heart with all the emotion conveyed in his voice. The songs which do this all had a massive amount of success in the UK, making this one of the albums of 1997. However, there’s a problem with this album that on repeated listens becomes very hard to ignore; namely the massive gulf in quality that exists between the outstanding singles, and a lot of the rest of the album, which suffers from Be Here Now
syndrome, otherwise known as the need to cut some songs from the album entirely, and take a few minutes off others.
A classic example of this is third song on the album, The Rolling People
. Weighing in at 7 minutes long, it’s clearly a step down in quality from the incredible opening double salvo of Bitter Sweet Symphony
even within the first four minutes. The thing is though, the band could simply have ended the song at that point, without leaving the listener exposed to what becomes little more than formless jamming, making the song twice as long as it needs to be, and ensuring that a lot of people will skip it after the first few listens. That’s not to say that this is true of every long non-single on this album, because it definitely isn’t. Catching The Butterfly
, for example, is a brooding masterpiece of a song, and sounds like it’s coming directly from someone tripping on acid on the floor, with distorted vocals making it reminiscent of a lot of psychedelica from the late 1960s. It’s six and a half minutes long, but nevertheless flows beautifully, as all sorts of effects fly around in the background. It couldn’t sound less similar to the singles, but shows that The Verve weren’t a one trick pony, and remembered a lot of what they had done with their previous music.
Since we’re now three paragraphs in, it’s about time to actually look at these singles, which most people of a certain age in Britain during 1997 will be able to tell you something about. Probably the most well known is Bittersweet Symphony
, which features a string sample from The Rolling Stones, and actually meant that The Verve didn’t receive a penny for the song, after an unsuccessful legal battle. It’s a majestic song, with drumming that perfectly complements the string section, along with Ashcroft’s melancholy vocals, singing “You’re a slave to money then you die” in a way beloved of Mancunian vocalists (Morrissey, anyone?). The Drugs Don’t Work
is, speaking personally, one of the best songs of the decade, acting as a tribute to Richard Ashcroft’s father, who was dying of cancer at the time of recording. As can easily be imagined, this lends an unbearable air of poignancy to the song, although it also offers a message warning against drug use, fuelling rumours at the time of release about Richard Ashcroft’s possible use of drugs. Like Bitter Sweet Symphony
, the use of strings here is superb, although they’re more understated than on the opening song of the album, with the emphasis far more on Ashcroft’s singing. Lucky Man
was another smash hit from the album, along with Sonnet
, and listening to them both again, something that’s very striking is just how good a lyricist Richard Ashcroft is. Although often self-referential (it’s hard not to believe that even the more oblique lyrics here don’t have some resemblance to his everyday experiences), lines such as “Happiness, more or less, it's just a change in me, something in my liberty” are right up there with most lyrics written by more respected songwriters, showing how unfortunate in a way this band was, releasing albums at the same time as so many other respected British bands, which got far more attention at the time, in spite of often being far inferior.
Something that has been said about The Verve, somewhat unfairly, is that they were the Travis of the 1990s, in that they wrote some great singles, albums that were easy to listen to, but ultimately they won’t be remembered even in 10 years time. The Verve were more than that, and could unquestionably write music that’s frankly far superior to anything that British “easy listening” bands such as Travis and Keane have ever come up with. But even for fans of The Verve, nagging at the back of your mind is the question of whether the detractors of the band are right. Leaving aside the four singles, this album does have some good songs, such as Velvet Morning
which is constantly threatening to turn into a U2 stadium anthem, but that’s the problem. These songs stop just short of taking the next step, and it’s actually hugely frustrating, knowing what the band is capable of, seeing them threatening to make a truly brilliant album, and then pulling back at the last minute repeatedly. As the last release by the band before their final split, it’s a maddening legacy, as they were improving with each release, and this album could so easily have been something with which they wrote their name on the list of great bands of the 1990s. Instead though this album eventually settles for something less, damn
ing Richard Ashcroft and his cohorts with far less praise than they might have otherwise got. Sadly, in spite of the four massive singles, that’s all this album really deserves.