If the Verve had stayed broken up after their 1995 split, leaving behind only the music on these two reissues, it still would have been enough.
"All farewells should be sudden." There was a time, albeit brief, when this was all that we were going to be left with. There was no ubiquitous anthem, no having the rights to their anthem denied them by greed and legal technicalities, no watching helplessly as their anthem was used to sell shoes. A few months after the release of their second album, the Verve broke up in the fall of 1995. They were sideline spectators as Britpop reached peak bloom in 1996. It wasn’t a sure thing that they would ever get back together, let alone only 18 months after splitting up. After A Northern Soul they were effectively over, but, if that had truly been the end, it still would have been enough.
The Verve were prone to standing out even in their earliest days. An acquaintance of this reviewer who grew up in Wigan, England, the band’s hometown, once recalled that as a kid he used to see them practicing on top of their garage. Adversity also seemed to stalk them, from singer Richard Ashcroft’s childhood health issues to two defining legal battles: the American jazz label Verve Records forcing them to add the ‘the’ to their name, and ABKCO ripping their biggest hit away from them. Guitarist Nick McCabe might be the only person to blow out an amp at Glastonbury twice.
They pursued success as much as any driven group, but also had a knack for getting in their own way at crucial junctures. Given that seemingly curious band psychology, it is maybe not too surprising that Ashcroft returned time and again to the matter of his and other peoples’ minds. They appeared in both song titles (their first single “All in the Mind”, “Beautiful Mind”) and a number of lyrics (“Slide Away”, “Already There”, plus references to ‘my head’ in “6 O’clock” and “Where the Geese Go”). The heavy reliance borders on easy psychedelic cliché, but the band’s conviction sold it all as a genuine. Ashcroft as a young lyricist reached to project internal depth and match the mood of the band’s expansive music.
The greatest depth on A Storm in Heaven comes from the vaporous dreams that poured out of McCabe’s guitar, traced patiently by Simon Jones’ bass playing and Peter Salisbury’s drumming. Though the Verve were able to compress their sound into radio-shaped singles “Slide Away” and “Blue”, the most compelling compositions -- “Already There”, “Beautiful Mind”, “Virtual World” -- are those that are allowed to naturally ebb and flow in a zone somewhere between pop editing and the looser jamming of the material that turned up on their singles and EPs. Ashcroft and McCabe’s strongest combined moment on the album is “Make It ‘Til Monday”, with Ashcroft peaking as an acid poet (“Hey my friend are we gonna make it ‘til Monday? / Another Friday night waiting for a revelation / I can see a million faces in the condensation”) while the guitars simmer and roil.
A Storm in Heaven here is joined by every song that surrounded it: those earliest A-sides (“All in the Mind”, “She’s a Superstar”, “Gravity Grave”), the Verve EP, the B-sides and outtakes from No Come Down, their 1994 collection. All are required for fans of this model of the Verve who somehow haven’t yet gathered them up. The whispering “A Man Called Sun” is an era classic. The band swung back and forth between peaceful and aggressive but almost always landed on some kind of beauty therein.
Then, with A Northern Soul, they would find the beauty in despair. Even after misfortunes at Lollapalooza ’94 and that lawsuit over their name, the Verve likely wouldn’t have been pegged as the band most likely to create the space rock successor to Joy Division’s Closer, but those public troubles were followed by personal ones. The band’s questionable decision to write their next album in a black room in an industrial space might have done just as much to determine their mood as reflect it.
Interestingly, Ashcroft starts A Northern Soul off in familiar territory: “A new decade / The radio plays the sounds we made / And everything seems to feel just right / Coming through your lonely mind”. It reads optimistic, up until you get to the state of mind. Amid the maelstrom of “A New Decade” runs a sound like a stretched out emergency siren. The astronauts are crashing back through the ionosphere. For the first time, the Verve sound angry and wounded.
On its heels charges “This Is Music”. “There's a door in my mind that's open wide / Come inside, come inside”, it beckons, but the welcome isn’t very warm. Between the first two songs, Ashcroft touches on anxieties about the unknown future, the next generation, isolation, class, inaction, and Jesus not saving any of us. All the while, the band lash out more concisely and determined than ever.
McCabe’s guitar playing still towers over A Northern Soul, but the album marks the point where Ashcroft’s songwriting began to take over as the engine that drove the Verve. The clearest examples of that are the two singles that followed “This Is Music”, “On Your Own” and “History”. The former a downbeat acoustic ballad and the latter a symphonic catharsis, both are instances in which the role of lead guitar is noticeably reduced. Whereas the strong personality of McCabe’s playing style initially distinguished the band from its peers even more so than Ashcroft, who was still finding his voice, A Northern Soul is the pivot point in which Ashcroft became the apparent leader. (When McCabe was finally brought back into the band after Ashcroft first blew it up, Much of Urban Hymns had already been laid down -- though “Catching the Butterfly” was written with McCabe, and it’s easy to tell.)
How bleak does A Northern Soul get? Well, Ashcroft spends an entire verse of the title track proclaiming over and over that he’s “gonna die alone in bed”. Probably the most enduring of the many stories behind the recording of the album is the one about producer Owen Morris getting so worked up as they nailed a take of “History” after an all-night session that he threw a chair through a plate glass window. By “Life’s an Ocean”, Ashcroft is so drained of his own feelings that he has nightmares about having to buy them from vending machines.
Somehow A Northern Soul manages to end on a note of weary relief, spotting the ‘new horizons’ behind the “Stormy Clouds” and its winding down instrumental reprise, where McCabe unfurls a soul-searching six-minute solo which nods at times to Hendrix’s “May This Be Love”. The optimism was even more apparent on “History” flipside “Back on My Feet Again”, a gentle piano-led wave that swells and consumes its blues, which also would have worked very well as a final hidden track on the album. As the band dug in to write A Northern Soul, Ashcroft was coping with the loss of a long term romantic relationship; by the time of the record’s release, he was in love again. The “History” single encapsulates the entire emotional swing on its two sides.
As with A Storm in Heaven, all of the other era material and extras are worthy. The calmer songs here that weren’t on the album -- “I See the Door”, “Back on My Feet Again”, “Grey Skies” -- show that not every moment for the Verve was as fraught as A Northern Soul made it seem. Other tracks give glimpses of what was to come on Urban Hymns and beyond; a band that was actually on the rise when by all accounts, including its own, it was done for. That reincarnated Verve will still surely be the one most thought of another 20 years down the road, but A Storm in Heaven and A Northern Soul are the life story of the band, not dress rehearsals.