1997 was a banner year in British music. Radiohead gave us “O.K. Computer,” one of the best albums ever made and one whose central theme of being consumed by technology seems prescient given the world we live in today. The Blur/Oasis war entered a transitional phase, as Blur took a step back and released its low-fi, American style self-titled album while Oasis charged full-steam into pretension and excess with “Be Here Now.” The Chemical Brothers and Prodigy both released successful electronic albums, while one of their forerunners, Depeche Mode, made a nice comeback with “Ultra” (arguably, the band’s last good album). It was a good year for British pop, too, as the Spice Girls had two albums hit #1 on the charts, and Gary Barlow had his last solo chart-topper before reuniting with Take That.
But one album towered above the rest.
The Verve released “Urban Hymns” on September 29, 1997 to rapturous reviews and near-universal acclaim. Long known for their psychedelic and spacey style, The Verve went for a more accessible rock-oriented sound for “Urban Hymns,” resulting in the best sales of their career. “Urban Hymns” topped the albums charts in the UK, New Zealand and Sweden, reached the Top 20 in Canada, Belgium, France, Australia, Germany and others, and even hit #23 in the U.S., where they were virtually unknown. The record also produced several memorable singles, including the smash hit “Bittersweet Symphony,” the gorgeous “The Drugs Don’t Work,” and the song that Bono says he wishes he had written: “Lucky Man.” Even the Gallagher brothers loved them, and they rarely have nice things to say about anyone – especially each other.
And it almost wasn’t to be. Like many great bands, The Verve had always relied on creative tension and seemed just as likely to break up as it was to record a masterpiece. Heading into the recording sessions for what would become “Urban Hymns,” the band didn’t even exist. While touring for the band’s previous album, “A Northern Soul,” a long-running feud between lead singer Richard Ashcroft and lead guitarist Nick McCabe resulted in the latter quitting the band and the former recruiting another guitarist to take his place. According to Ashcroft, he intended to release “Urban Hymns” as a solo record and had written most of the album on his own before deciding to make nice with his former bandmates and turn it into a Verve project.
“Urban Hymns” may have been a group album, but it was clear that Ashcroft was the one dictating the creative direction. Eight of the 13 songs on the album were credited solely to Ashcroft, and a ninth, “Bittersweet Symphony,” was credited to Ashcroft, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards – a move that would have tremendous repercussions for the band.
Ashcroft’s songs skewed towards mainstream pop-rock to a far greater degree than what the band had, previously, been known for. Lush orchestral arrangements became the norm, while ballads like “Sonnet,” “The Drugs Don’t Work,” “One Day,” “Weeping Willow,” and “Velvet Morning” dominated the album. Experimental, psychedelic songs in the vein of the band’s prior output like “The Rolling People,” “Come On,” and the McCabe-penned “Neon Wilderness” were less common. In fact, McCabe’s trademark sonic wail gets relegated to the background, a move that didn’t seem to sit well with the guitarist. “[Urban Hymns] was just a safe bet for people,” McCabe said in 2002. “I’m not going to say it was bad. I mean, we were good as far as pop goes. But it’s pop music.” McCabe would go on to compare the album to Robbie Williams and Bon Jovi while complaining that “Urban Hymns” was “filled with ballads.” Bassist Simon Jones agreed saying: “The Verve were going off in a direction of strings and ballads, and that’s not where I was coming from at all. Loud guitars is it for me.”
Indeed, the album might have been even more poppy and full of ballads had Ashcroft decided to release it as a solo album. He wrote and demoed several songs during the “Urban Hymns” sessions that ended up on his 2000 solo debut album, “Alone with Everybody,” including the upbeat “C’Mon People (We’re Making it Now)” and lead single “A Song for the Lovers,” a melodic, emotive song about love backed by lush orchestral arrangements. Another outtake, “This Could be My Moment,” ended up on the Verve’s 2004 greatest hits albums and is one of the poppiest songs Ashcroft has ever written.
“Imagine being the guy that’s written an album on his own, bottles it near the end, feels like there’s unfinished business, rings Nick McCabe up who adds some guitars, puts it out as the Verve and the same problems arise again,” Ashcroft said in 2002. “Imagine being that mug. I’ve now got to rewrite history. Everyone thinks those songs are somehow associated with another bunch of people that I’m not with now.”
Would an album consisting of his nine songs from “Urban Hymns” (“Bittersweet Symphony,” “Sonnet,” “The Drugs Don’t Work,” “Space and Time,” “Weeping Willow,” “Lucky Man,” “One Day,” “Velvet Morning,” and “This Time”) and his four outtakes (“A Song for the Lovers,” “New York,” “C’Mon People,” and “This Could be My Moment”) still be considered a classic? Maybe – after all, the songs that most people love would still be on there. But that version of “Urban Hymns” would veer too far into traditional Britpop without contributions from the rest of the group. One of the strengths of this expansive album is that it integrates the classic Verve sound with a new style that opened up lots of future possibilities for the band.
Of course, what it really presaged was the beginning of Richard Ashcroft’s solo career. The Verve was unable to take advantage of its new found popularity, as “Urban Hymns” turned out to be the prelude to a complete and tota implosion. Old tensions between McCabe and Ashcroft resurfaced during the ensuing tour and the guitarist, once again, quit the band. Ashcroft, meanwhile, became embittered after losing his rights to “Bittersweet Symphony” to The Rolling Stones, noting angrily that it was “the best song Jagger and Richards have written in twenty years.” The band split after the tour ended and, other than a half-hearted reunion in 2007, relations remain strained to this day.
It’s too bad. “Urban Hymns” proved that The Verve was greater than the sum of its parts and that, in the midst of all the chaos and personal differences, the band could still come together and create a masterpiece. Indeed, Ashcroft hasn’t been able to come close to recreating the sound – or the success – of “Urban Hymns” in his solo career. Clearly, he did derive some benefit from bottling it at the end and calling McCabe into the studio. Hopefully, all the remembrances of the album will remind him of that.