A touchstone anthem for a generation or several, one whose power still resonates and probably the Verve’s finest moment. In 1997, British guitar music was experiencing a creative and commercial revival and the likes of Radiohead, the Manic Street Preachers and these guys were riding high, creating melancholy, angst ridden, existential rock music with themes both epic and personal.
For myself and a group of close friends and of course millions others at the time, The Verve’s Urban Hymns was an album that was, cliche alert! a soundtrack for our lives for about a year. It was something of a comeback album for the Wigan band who had initially disbanded in 1995 after a couple of superb albums.
1993’s A Storm in Heaven was and still is a near masterpiece, full of swooning, epic psychedelic jams that seemed dropped to earth from the gods while 1995’s A Northern Soul was a more groove orientated, straight ahead rock record that contained some of Richard Ashcroft’s most personal, affecting songwriting. A Northern Soul was almost a commercial breakthrough but tensions between Ashcroft and guitarist Nick Mc Cabe prompted a split.
After resolving differences and reforming in 1997 to begin recording again, Urban Hymns quickly became a hugely anticipated event. Glowing reviews followed and unprecedented commercial success was finally achieved, largely fueled by sales and radio play of their comeback single ‘Bittersweet Symphony’.
Towering, majestic and triumphant, the songs hip-hop meets Spector wall of sound was unlike anything else at the time and Ashcroft’s impassioned, swaggering delivery makes it seem like a state of the world address and indeed it summed up the mood of the times and for myself a certain male confusion and anxiety. The sense that being a young man in the late 20th century and early 21st century was confusing and filled with emotional, psychological pitfalls.
The song and video (clearly influenced by this classic) are a defiant cry, a howl of frustration against powerlessness, loneliness, disconnection. It asks us to acknowledge our confusion, our frustration, our pain; to acknowledge life and each other.
We all walk down this road; broken yet proud, down but not out.