Urban Hymns (1997)
Thoughts Before Listening
Once again, I know only the one song from this One Hit Wonder. “Bitter Sweet Symphony” is a big, sweeping, beautifully arranged number that holds up pretty well today. The two things I remember about this song are the very cool video with lead singer Richard Ashcroft walking down a London street, and a controversy regarding songwriting credit for Keith Richards and Mick Jagger.
The strings and general melody were lifted from an orchestral remake of the Rolling Stones song “The Last Time” by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra. I’ll include it in the Additional Listening below because it is worth playing – if you listen very, very closely, I’ll bet you hear the similarity.
I think “Bitter Sweet Symphony” has been included in almost every 90’s compilation album I’ve ever heard, and on movie soundtracks. I have no emotional attachment to this song, but I think I may have had an awkward slow dance to it with my wife back when we were dating. The timing checks out and this had violins in it so, you know, total romance.
By this point, I’m no longer making assumptions about what I’m going to hear – there are too many disappointments. I associate The Verve with angst, so if I was a betting man I’d say this is going to be a sad album.
Other Songs of Note
This week we are trying something a little different and putting the “personal mixtape” songs first. It’ll make more sense when you read it.
What we would put on our personal mixtapes
“The Drugs Don’t Work”
Scott (5 points)
This is a beautiful, poignant song. I love the string arrangement – it’s another example of brilliant incorporation of strings into a traditional rock 4-piece. It works incredibly well when done right.
To me, this is clearly the songwriting of someone who has lost someone close to them in a protracted battle with something awful, watching them slip away, to the points where the drugs no longer work. In the midst of this pain, Ashcroft writes:
But if you want a show Then just let me know And I'll sing in your ear again Now the drugs don't work They just make you worse But I know I'll see your face again
Yes, the situation is terrible, yes there is pain. But there is beauty in music that he’s willing to sing, and there’s power in faith. It’s an impactful, raw song about losing a loved one.
This is your 5 point song?
This is a depressing song and I am not happy. Are the drugs medicine? Are they recreational? Both? Who’s taking them? Am I taking them? If I am, I want my money back because I have been ripped off.
Also, this isn’t a four-piece. Did I know what a four-piece was when I started writing this? No. Did I look it up on Wikipedia? Yes. But did I need to? No. And you know why? Because look at the cover! There are five guys in this band. Five! Oh wait, are some of them playing the same instrument? Not two of the same instrument, but one instrument shared between them. The answer is yes, two of them are playing the electric brood but all of them are skilled in acoustic pretentiousness.
Did I also look up who Ashcroft is that you mentioned? Yes. Because I thought for just a moment that maybe they had taken somebody else’s lyrics or poetry and put it to their own music. You know how I love a good cover song. Imagine my disappointment that it’s just the singer of the Verve. That’s right, for all of you non-The Verve fanatics out there, Scott is just name dropping the band members. “Oh, you just have to hear Jones occasionally providing back up vocals to fully understand the nuance of this album.”
Ugh, Scott, are you going to be like this for the whole album?
Scott (2 points)
I enjoy the great mastering on this one – it is very clean. It’s got a LOT of parts going on by the end, and I think I like it. Nice little string outro. This is an interesting take on love – how it’s not the storybook tale as found in the titular sonnet, but something more real. As he sings, “It’s there if you want it”.
Granted, this is a nice song to immediately follow after “Bitter Sweet Symphony”. It’s better than I feared it would be, but it didn’t stick.
I did not hate it, but I did not want it.
Scott (1 points)
Another hopeful track about living a life worth living, and that it’s never too late to start doing so. I really enjoy the percussion on this one and its clear hip-hop influence.
For the second shortest song on the album, it felt like I was listening to it for a long time. The most life affirming thing that this track did for me was finish so I could be one track closer to the end of the album.
“Come On” (includes hidden song “Deep Freeze”)
Weh-Ming (1 points)
“Come On” was just angry, but not in a pump-you-up kind of way. Just in an “angry for being angry” kind of way.
“Deep Freeze” How happy was I to find out that there was a hidden track? Come on, son! I love a hidden track as much as the next guy… but this was just a bit of nonsense that shouldn’t have been hidden. It should have been buried.
I grant these songs 1 point because hidden tracks make me feel nostalgic, but the songs themselves are meh.
“Come On” – I really enjoy the arrangement of this one. Great guitar work, well built song. “Deep Freeze” – Neat, an instrumental. Quite a mashup of sounds here. No. Oh no. My god I hate the sound of a crying baby. There’s no need. It brings me back to several years of not sleeping through the night. And I hate it.
The icing on the cake
“Space and Time” – 6 points
Scott (3 points)
One of the prettier tales of a numb relationship with two people afraid to be alone. But again, despite the surface pain, there’s a core of hope and positivity woven through this one. He wants to move the relationship to a healthier, more fulfilling state. He envisions a better place where that might happen.
Weh-Ming (3 points)
Oh this is standing out. Enjoyable. It’s not uber catchy, but I like the tune. I wouldn’t put this into heavy rotation, but if it came on I’d listen to the first bit of it before hitting skip because the end never ends. What do I mean by that? Glad you asked, check this out:
I just can't make it alone Oh, no, no I just can't make it alone Oh, no, no I just can't make it alone Oh, no, no I just can't make it alone Oh, no, no Ain't got no lullaby, no, no Ain't got no lullaby, oh, no There is no space and time Oh lord There is no space and time Oh lord We have existence and it's all we share We have existence and it's all we share We have existence and it's all we share We have existence and it's all we share We have existence and it's all we share Keep on pushing 'cause I know it's there Keep on pushing 'cause I know it's there Keep on pushing 'cause I know it's there Keep on pushing 'cause I know it's there
See? Scott’s not the only one who can put in the lyrics for songs. The first line quoted here is at the 2:20 mark in the song. Why would I point that out? Because it takes 3:16 to get through this! This is more than half the song and it’s just the same things over and over! Do you know what you could do with that time? Do a level in Duolingo and learn another language. Make popcorn. Check yourself before you wreck yourself. So many options.
I just can't make it alone Oh, no, no Ain't got no lullaby, oh, no There is no space and time Oh lord We have existence and it's all we share Keep on pushing 'cause I know it's there
Look at that! I just shaved off 2:45 off the song and we can all get back to being so dark and misunderstood much more efficiently.
I am not against repetitive lyrics, they can work and they can be awesome. I was a huge electronica fan in my day, and it doesn’t get much more repetitive than that. But this was just boring.
“Lucky Man” – 6 points
Scott (4 points)
Positivity! We’ve once again got acoustic guitar and strings. This seems to be the magic combination for me and really enjoying a Verve song. This is absolutely a breath of fresh, exultant air after the last few tracks. I don’t think it’s positioning in the album is accidental. It lets us see some light after a few dark songs. Another legitimate hit for The Verve, but not quite top 10 in Canada/US.
Weh-Ming (2 points)
This song caused me to question all the points I’ve awarded songs on this album. Did I really like this song? Or do I only like it compared to the rest of the album? I can understand why this is a popular song, there is a catchiness to it.
It is more accessible than many of the songs on this album, but is that alone deserving of points? Shouldn’t I only grant points to songs that I legitimately enjoy? Is The Verve causing me to question whether I actually like something?!
It’s your lucky day, The Verve. I give the points.
I will admit to always having thought of The Verve as an off-brand Oasis that had one huge hit, and not much more. In the Britpop movement, I always leaned towards the more angular sound of Blur as opposed to the arena-ready sprawling epics of Oasis. It’s probably for these reasons that I never explored Urban Hymns.
This was a mistake I’m glad to have rectified, all these years later. This is a brilliant album, full stop. It’s clearly written from the perspective of a person coming to terms with the brutal realities of adulthood and working through the last vestiges of shiny, happy youth. It’s not always an easy listen, as some pretty heavy topics are batted around. He does call his shot in the opening of “Bitter Sweet Symphony”:
'Cause it's a bitter sweet symphony that's life Trying to make ends meet, you're a slave to money then you die I'll take you down the only road I've ever been down You know the one that takes you to the places Where all the veins meet, yeah
This really sets our expectations for what we’re about to dive into – a collage of misery and numbness and pain. Ashcroft tackles broken relationships, suicide, depression, the loss of childhood innocence, etc. These topics are not tackled dismissively or glibly, but rather from the heart (Where all the veins meet, yeah).
The first three/quarters of the album is thematically pretty dark, but even in most of these songs, there’s always a glimmer of wanting to do better, be better. When we get to “Lucky Man”, it feels like we round a corner. The positivity is the positivity of a mature, knowing adult – he’s seen the bad, he acknowledges it, but through a shift in his own viewpoint, he finds happiness.
It’s quite a trip to see this arc unfold throughout the album with barely a misstep. I’ve probably listened to the album front to back four times in the last week, and it is growing on me more and more with each listen. Seventy years before this release, Max Ehrman wrote one of my favourite poems – “Desiderata”. The end of that poem sums up this album better than I ever could: “With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. / Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”
I now present to you my masterclass, “The Verve Songwriting Process”:
- Write something pretentiously sad.
- Put it to music
- Repeat the same line 2-3 times at the start
- Repeat the same line 4-8 times in the middle
- Repeat the same line 5-10 times at the end
- Songs cannot be too long. If it feels like it might be getting too long, keep going until you stop feeling that and do at least one more.
Okay, kidding aside, this album was… not my favorite. I wanted to like it, and there were a few songs I didn’t despise. I would never dispute that these guys are artists and extremely talented. I don’t think I was ever in their demographic, so maybe that’s why it fell flat for me.
Of course, this album is a billion times better than the best song I could ever create. But would I have released this album if I did have the ability? No. I would have listened to it and said “Oh dear, I ruined it.” Then me and the band would sigh in relief that we caught it before anyone else could hear it.
Yeah But What Else
Down the Rabbit Hole (Additional listening inspired by listening to this album.)
The lineage of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” traced back through time:
The Staple Singers – “This May Be the Last Time” – Keith Richards said that their song adapted this traditional gospel song.
The Rolling Stones – “The Last Time” – The song that spawned the orchestral version that started all the drama around “Bitter Sweet Symphony”.
Andrew Oldham Orchestra – “The Last Time” – It’s pretty clear. Yes, there was a lot of other stuff going on in “Bitter Sweet Symphony”, but wow it’s clear.
And now, some Britpop!
Oasis – “Don’t Look Back In Anger” – But Scott, where’s Wonderwall? It’s my list, and I choose this one!
Blur – “Girls and Boys” – Probably my favourite Blur song, and it pretty much marks the moment you couldn’t call them an indie band anymore.
Pulp – “Common People” – The rich just don’t get it. This song rings as true today as the day it was written. And it is catchy as hell. And if the Blur song into this one doesn’t get you moving, there might be something wrong with you.
William Shatner – “Common People” – This should be terrible. It should not work. But it’s not, and it does. This is probably my favourite song by an Original Cast member. Well, except for maybe…
DOUBLE BONUS TRACK:
Leonard Nimoy – “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” – I love that this song exists. Spoiler warning for those of you that have yet to read The Hobbit.
Weird Al has never done a parody of The Verve or included them in one of his polkas. This album was released when he was recording Running With Scissors in 1997-1999, but it didn’t make the cut (get it? Cause scissors?).
That particular album has a bit more ska and big band than I would prefer, but I think the angst position was taken by the style parody for Nine Inch Nails.
While I agree that William Shatner’s “Common People” is incredible, I can’t listen to “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins”. Nothing against Mr. Nimoy, he’s great. But that song. Ugh.
I have never read The Hobbit.