Just before I went travelling I was given a Kindle as a birthday present—ideal, given my voracious reading habits, and its 3G, which was a boon when I couldn’t face looking for internet cafés in Mexico. It’s great, but it’s totally changed my life as a commuter. On my way into work, I want to read, and I want to listen to music, and I’d ideally like to do both at the same time. The right way of doing this is to pick a sophisticated book, and team it with an album which is similar in mood but entirely vacuous in terms of lyrical content—or, better still, is instrumental.
My current source of literary fixation is Hardy’s Jude The Obscure, and I think I’ve found a suitable soundtrack for its tale of an outsider’s endless struggle against social conventions and the outrageous turns of Fortune.
With their bombastic, psychedelic and cloud-scraping brand of Britpop, The Verve are so much a part of the accepted 1990s canon that we don’t often step back and consider the true import of their music. Unlike with their extended contemporaries (Blur, Oasis, Pulp, Suede, for the uninitiated), no one really thought to imitate them at the time—probably because any kind of extension on their themes would have come across as faintly ridiculous.There were tons of Britpop also-rans (hands up, who remembers Shed Seven and Menswe@r?) but none of them dared encroach on The Verve’s musical bacchanalia.
Against the sturm und drang of their music—guitarist Nick McCabe in particular really knew how to coat the songs in five layers of sonic treacle—Richard Ashcroft belted out generally context-free lyrics which expounded on universal themes which, in the hands of a lesser ego, frequently results in the most awful kind of faceless nonsense (see The Killers, Coldplay). Just look at the song titles. “So It Goes”, “Space And Time”, “One Day”: Ashcroft truly was a master generalist, capable of uniting every man on the side of his tormented everyman persona.
In this context, the christening of their purported masterpiece as Urban Hymns should be treated with indifference. The songs on it are no more urban than they are suburban, rural, arctic, mangrove or tundra. These are songs that speak to the universe, and its celestial bodies therein.
You can do cheesy things, as long as they’re original cheesy things. So The Verve got away with the sweeping, narrative-free truisms, the soaring string arrangements, and the freewheeling, slightly baggy rhythms. In fact, they did more than get away with these things: they practically invented them, and it took a good few years for trash to imitate art. You need a healthy suspension of disbelief to enjoy The Verve at their most hokey (“History”, “On Your Own”), and so too with their more meandering compositions (“Catching The Butterfly”, “Brainstorm Interlude”, most of their first album). But if they catch you at the right moment, when you’re in the right frame of mind, you’ll be floored.
[DISCLAIMER: None of this applies to their “comeback” album, Forth, which really is terrible]