After a brief but promising career that had thus far yielded some singles plus a pair of modestly successful albums, A Storm In Heaven (1993) and A Northern Soul (1995), it appeared that The Verve was no more, but thankfully the band’s breakup was short-lived. Attempting to craft a solo album, singer-songwriter Richard Ashcroft eventually drafted in his bandmates (Nick McCabe, guitar; Simon Jones, bass; Peter Salisbury, drums; new member Simon Tong, guitar and keyboards), and they returned better than ever on the masterful Urban Hymns, the band's breakthrough release and the one for which they will be best remembered. Of course, Ashcroft has always talked a big game, but that’s ok because his band has equally big ideas along with an equally big sound. In fact, there’s nothing little at all about this album, as even melancholic songs with acoustic guitars such as the “The Drugs Don’t Work,” “Lucky Man,” and “One Day” have a big epic sound and a timeless appeal. The album starts off with the huge international hit “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” which was the single of the year if not the decade, led by its majestic, sweeping strings (borrowed from a long lost Andrew Loog Oldham orchestral version of a Rolling Stones song). This song is obviously the album’s biggest highlight (though unfortunately for them the songwriting credits unfairly went exclusively to Jagger-Richards), while Wikipedia aptly noted that "the rest of the album alternated between wistful ballads like "Sonnet" and "Space and Time," spacey grooves like "Catching the Butterfly" and "The Rolling People," and all-out rockers like the Led Zeppelin-esque, pounding "Come On."" Although the enticing psychedelic guitar swirl that highlighted their early "shoegazer" works is still in evidence (McCabe is one of the '90s most underrated guitar heroes), this album also contains lots of strings along with Ashcroft's sighing vocals which are often quite affecting. The lyrics are also effective and are meant to tug at the 'ol heartstrings, offering memorable sound bites ("'Cause it's a bittersweet symphony, this life, Try to make ends meet, you're a slave to money then you die") as well as simple but universal sentiments of longing ("one day maybe we will love again") and the need for togetherness ("I just can’t make it alone"). "The Drugs Don't Work," a #1 U.K. hit featuring arguably Ashcroft's greatest vocal, in particular is almost unbearably sad and poignant, while the also-terrific "Lucky Man" was the album's other successful single. The ambitious Urban Hymns ultimately uplifts, however, as the band grandly aims for greatness and refreshingly connects most of the time. My only complaints about the album are that it runs a bit long (75 minutes), some of the trippy jam-like sections can be a bit unfocused, and maybe there's a song or two ("Neon Wilderness" for example) that I don't care for. Still, on the whole Urban Hymns contains truly majestic music that's comparable to Oasis at their best (this album is therefore sometimes associated with "Britpop" though it came at the tail end of that scene), and despite its minor faults I find it too be an endlessly replayable classic that's of its time but transcends it as well. Alas, rather than build on the momentum of this album the band broke up, though they regrouped and released Forth in 2008.
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