- by Kevin Orton Rating:9 Release Date:2016-09-09 Label: Virgin EMI / UMC
At their Urban Hymns peak, The Verve might have been one of the greatest bands in the world. Only they weren’t there to enjoy it. They broke up. They also broke up months after cutting this album. Yet, on both Urban Hymns and A Northern Soul they were at the top of their game. Even if they were falling apart at the same time. It was recorded at a time of great mental and physical turmoil for the band and for front man, Richard Ashcroft. Narcotics and drink probably didn’t help. If Storm In Heaven was their Psychedelic debut, A Northern Soul saw them move in a more direct Rock direction. More focused yet, more fragile. These songs sound like they are barely held together by spit and glue. They could fall apart at any moment. Never before had Ashcroft’s songs sounded so raging and tortured. For my money, this one of The Verve’s finest records. While, far from perfect, nothing great ever is.
'A New Decade' greets you but ‘This Is Music’ finds the band on a bender. “I stand accused for being born like you without a silver spoon,” Ashcroft sneers under heavy guitars. In stark contrast, ‘On My Own’ is one of those achingly beautiful ballads, Ashcroft truly excels at. “Tell me if it’s true, I need you,” the maestro raggedly croons. Its a great showcase for Ashcroft as a vocalist.
The Verve cut their teeth touring with Oasis. And there is a genuine bond between both bands. Yet, where Oasis’ Liam Gallagher is distant and unavailable, Ashcroft is vulnerable and sincere. Where Liam posed, Ashcroft means it. This is no put on. He actually feels what he's singing. He’s not just performing it, he's living it. Which may explain why I always preferred The Verve to the more superficial likes of Oasis.
‘So It Goes’ is another gorgeous ballad, going to show Ashcroft could have been another Bono if he wanted to. “You show me things I don’t want to see, I don’t believe love is free,” he sings. Abetted by hypnotic guitars, it’s the perfect lead into the title track.
‘A Northern Soul’ was reputedly written in response to Noel Gallagher dedicating, ‘Cast No Shadow’ to Ashcroft. A classy gesture on Noel's part and Ashcroft returns the favor with a demented, angst ridden dark night of the soul. “I want to see you cure my ills, I have no time for love or devotion,” Ashcroft groans. Guitars grind and snarl. Sentiments like, “I wanna die alone in bed” are an open window into Ashcroft’s state of mind at the time. In terms of the band, they sound less concerned and more pissed off. Oddly, both moods compliment each other. They shouldn't, but they do.
Granted, ‘Brainstorm Interlude’ is five minutes of useless noise. It's little more than filler that outstays its welcome. An ill tempered jam with White Album pretensions. If anything, it sets up the breathtaking, ‘Drive You Home’. Ashcroft sounding like he’s feeling no pain, the band following suit. A junkies’ Christmas in Wigan. I'd love to drive you home baby, but here I am stoned out of my gourd. I apologize. I'd ask what the fuck is wrong with me, but I'm miles away from everything. Its one of the best songs I've ever heard about drugs. So human. So full of tragedy and yet perversely, humor. Just brilliant.
With ‘History’ they break out the string section for A Northern Soul’s most soaring moment. “I got to tell the tale of how I loved and failed”, Ashcroft confesses. For that is what this album is, a confessional. A heartbreaking work of drugged up, staggering genius. Lines like, “I’ve got a skin full of dope” might explain why it was never the hit it should have been.
‘No Knock On My Door’ is the home run sound of trying to kick. Ultimately, it’s what makes this dope obsessed record so life affirming. ‘Life’s An Ocean’, is the sound of someone dealing with sobriety and the gravitational pull of relapse. “I was buying some feelings from a vending machine,” has to be the album's penultimate line. However, ‘Stormy Clouds’ is the nihilistic sound of defiant relapse. It all goes to show this cautionary tale has no happy ending, unless of course you’re the song’s doped up protagonist. It’s A Northern Soul’s most twisted moment. “Stop the love”, you can hear Ashcroft whisper at one point if you listen close.
In terms of the U.S.A. The Verve were a part of what I would call the Third British Invasion. The one that began with the Beatles and Stones in the 60's and struck again in the 80's with the likes of The Cure and the Smiths. Only this time round, in the 90's you have bands named Pulp, Suede, Blur, and Oasis. Not to mention a little band called, Radiohead. And despite falling apart too soon, The Verve cast a long shadow on all those bands. When A Northern Soul came out, it was the days of "heroin chic". But this album, bravely delved into the issue of addiction for real. Not from the perspective of some glamorous model in their underwear but from the perspective of a lad with no tomorrow and everything to lose. It’s a work of passion and conviction and it may not be perfect but it’s still one hell of a listen after all these years.
Sure, the reissue game is old. It’s just the record company shilling the rubes once more, after all. And yes, there’s some gems among the bonus bric a brac. But if on the off chance it introduces someone to this mostly brilliant and influential album, reissue away. I must say, I can certainly hear its influence on MONEY's Suicide Songs.
The expanded 3-disc edition contans the following tracks:
CD1: The Remastered Album
A New Decade
This Is Music
On Your Own
So It Goes
A Northern Soul
Drive You Home
No Knock On My Door
Life’s An Ocean
This Is Music
1. Let The Damage Begin
2. You And Me
On Your Own
3. I See The Door
4. Little Gem
5. Dance On Your Bones
6. History (radio edit)
7. Back On My Feet Again
8. On Your Own (Acoustic)
9. Monkey Magic (Brainstorm Mix)
10. Grey Skies
11. Life’s Not A Rehearsal
CD3 – Unreleased Studio and BBC Sessions
1. Brake Lights
3. Funky Jam (aka he Rolling People)
4. Echo Bass
5. Muhammad Ali
6. Come On
7. King Riff (aka This Is Music)
BBC Radio 1 Session – 28/6/1995
8. On Your Own
9. So It Goes
BBC Radio 1 Session (19/6/1995)
10. A New Decade
11. This Is Music
12. Life’s An Ocean
13. Come On