The Verve - Urban Hymns - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

The Verve - Urban Hymns

by Tim Sentz Rating:8 Release Date:1997-09-29
The Verve - Urban Hymns
The Verve - Urban Hymns

Let’s cut right to the chase – there really isn’t much evolution when it comes to Shoegaze. Pedals, distortion, sonic walls, feedback – it’s all commonplace in almost every single shoegaze band since the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Psychocandy” first debuted in 1985. It can be hard on the ears to some, but others its pure bliss. But since its inception it hasn’t developed much from that sound, and so many bands will often ditch the distortion and veer closer to an accessible sound. It works for some, but not many.

Case in point: The Verve. Debuting in 1992, the English band was categorized as a Space rock/Shoegaze hybrid – two genres that border each other. Their early work was steeped in the noise that made bands like My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive popular. Unfortunately, that popularity had a shelf-life of around five years, and by the time “Loveless” was 2 years old, the Shoegaze boom had fizzled. Following up two classic alt-rock/shoegaze classics, Oxford’s Ride had decided to shift with the times and released the less-than-stellar “Carnival of Light,” a Britpop re-appraisal that bombed with fans and critics.

Shoegaze was dead in the water. Ride disbanded. Slowdive went experimental with “Pygmalion” then dissolved as its primary songwriters focused on the folk-infused Mojave 3. Kevin Shields promised a follow-up to MBV’s iconic “Loveless” but that wasn’t fulfilled until 2013. The scene that celebrates itself wasn’t celebrating anymore.

The Verve weren’t ready to succumb to those pitfalls, and decided to follow in Ride’s footsteps and make that hard transition to Britpop – a genre that was on the uptick thanks to Blur and Oasis. “Urban Hymns” is the result of a band refusing to give up and accept defeat. To this day, “Urban Hymns” is a testament to success. And while they’d ditched their gazey roots for a slicker, MTV-friendly feel, they did it gracefully.

Today, everyone knows “Bittersweet Symphony” and its accompanying video of Richard Ashcroft wandering down the street bumping into pedestrians.  And while It received tremendous airplay, and soundtracked countless movies – including the teen erotic drama “Cruel Intentions” – “Urban Hymns” is brimming with Oasis-lite grooves and Blur-style aesthetic.  It pales in comparison to their earlier work, but it contains one of the last batches of pure Britpop before the 2000s.

The album does have pitfalls though – things that were ignored upon its release in ’97. “The Drug’s Don’t Work” was the second single after “Symphony” but it rides a fine line between being a sincere reflection on Rockstar addiction and Rivers Cuomo-esque mope, complete with paint-by-numbers lyrics. At the time it was an accessible hit, but today it feels like a missed opportunity. Elsewhere on the album there’s misguided attempts at recalling their roots in “The Rolling People” and “Weeping Willow” that don’t sour the songs but they feel half-assed. The Southern-drawl of “Lucky Man” should conjure up a folkish feeling – sitting around the campfire with your friends and a guitar – but here it’s just out of place. It’s pleasing at first, but overstays its welcome quickly.

“Sonnet” is a personal favorite though – a jet-black cool rock anthem that sounds perfect through car stereo speakers as it bleeds out through the windows. The aggressiveness on album closer “Come On” is a wonderful throwback to the band's harsher material even if it only scratches the surface. As a whole “Urban Hymns” is a compliment to the Britpop era, and doubles as a swan song of sorts for that period. Its influences can still be felt, even if The Verve were never able to replicate its success. Two years removed from “Urban Hymns” and the Verve split amid in-fighting claims and general fatigue. The misguided “Forth” album after a brief reunion signaled the final nail in the coffin to their legacy.

But the moments that “Urban Hymns” gets right are prime examples of a band willing to make sacrifices to succeed. It doesn’t shine in every moment, and it lead to the development of the Brit-trash movement fronted by the likes of Coldplay and Keane. It’s funny in a way. The British explosion of the ‘60s paved the way for American culture to digest bands like Oasis and The Verve, and all of those ‘60s era bands saw varying degrees of success just like the Verve. They were high and dry for two years, defying the odds and assembling an album that has – for better or worse – stood the test of time.


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