The Verve's long-awaited return is a return to form with Forth.
The Verve already had a breakup and reformation under its belt 11 years ago when the breakthrough album Urban Hymns was released. Critically lauded, as well as popularly acclaimed on the strength of singles "Bittersweet Symphony" and "The Drugs Don't Work", Urban Hymns, and the pressures of the touring that followed it, unfortunately led to a second, and seemingly final, disbandment.
Then, after a decade of solo work and other projects, the original line up -- singer Richard Ashcroft, guitarist Nick McCabe, bassist Simon Jones and drummer Peter Salisbury -- reunited last year, "…for the joy of music". After scheduling six sold out shows for November 2007, the band revealed its first new music in a decade. With their return so well-received, members continued touring into 2008, headlining some of the biggest venues and hitting many festivals, including Coachella last April and Glastonbury in June.
Having already worked fans and the press into quite a lather with those and several other stunning live shows, the Verve then caused a full-force frenzy by presenting a non-album teaser track called "Mover" -- a well-known, but previously unreleased, live favorite from the mid-'90s -- as a free download in July quickly followed by a multi-version single of Forth's "Love Is Noise". It seems the Verve has a knack for how best to maximize the benefits of the rapidly-evolving digital arena. In fact, the band has a knack for minimizing digital-age detriments too. When the record leaked two weeks before the street date, it was immediately posted, in its entirety, on MySpace as a free stream.
And now, comes Forth.
It might be assumed that the album's title is a play on the fact that, despite being almost 20 years after the band began, this is only its fourth full-length. But the name could also be an imperative, a command, a rallying cry as in "Go Forth and Conquer!" as I'm sure the Verve intends to do. And, as befits a long awaited, highly anticipated release from a band of near-mythic status, possessing obvious savvy and a flawless marketing campaign, Forth is available in three different formats. The original CD includes 10 of 12 tracks recorded last year in London. The double heavyweight gatefold vinyl edition exclusively features the other two, "Ma Ma Soul" and "Muhammad Ali", and comes with an exclusive case bound tour book. The Special Edition box set is apparently only attainable through the Verve's online store and contains the original CD and a DVD with five songs from the band's glorious live set at Coachella, as well as a documentary called Space and Time, packaged in the collectible case bound tour book. Additionally, each version of Forth includes a code for instant download of "Love Is Noise" recorded live at Glastonbury. Other digital downloads of exclusive live Glastonbury tracks are available, and vary depending on point of purchase.
But is it worth it? If the early buzz and fan expectation prove to be any indication, Forth certainly seems poised to prevail. Of course, although it helps, marketing doesn't always make an album, it's the songs that matter most for a band like this.
In "Sit and Wonder" McCabe's arabesque guitar work revolves around hypnotic rhythms and weaves in, out, behind and between Ashcroft's voice, which is riveting as he repeats the one line chorus, "Yeah give me some light, give me the light." He very well could be explaining the road to the band's return, all the while making it sound like a defiant declaration:
The rites of passage
We all must take 'em
And some are going to break in the storm
The door is open
And I am reaching
Yeah it's looking like a prodigal son
If "Sit and Wonder" is the announcement that the Verve has arrived again, "Love Is Noise" is the signal that the party can officially start. "Love is noise / Love is pain / Love is these blues that I'm feeling again / Love is noise / Love is pain / Love is these blues that I'm singing again," says Ashcroft, but no one's blue on this energetic, orchestrally-accented, dare-to-call-it-dance-rock with its "Ooh-hoo, ooh-hoo, ooh-hoo /Ah-ah, ah-ah, ah-ah" refrain. There's no question why this is the lead single, it has broad appeal without sacrificing any of the elements with which this band is identified. "Rather Be" employs another side of those elements, recalling the music coming out of Manchester in the early '90s. The melody is built on piano, with Ashcroft singing vaguely spiritual, soulful lyrics backed by a chorus of voices, a swirling swell of guitar and strings.
"Judas" is even more ethereal in its instrumentation, but it doesn't have the lift of its predecessor until McCabe's guitars kick in near the end and everything about the song expands. This song also has the distinction of possessing one of Forth's clunkiest lines ("New York I was Judas / She said latte double shot for Judas") along side one of its best lyrics ("For the things to happen, people need to know / And for a dream to happen, you gotta let it go").
"Numbness" is a bluesy, slow-burner that features McCabe channeling David Gilmour as Ashcroft intones about being stoned ("Here comes Mother Nature's Child / Numbness on the brain / Yeah numbness on the brain…"), While some may see the Floyd fealty as a good thing, this track feels a bit out of space and time at this point in the sequence. "I See Houses" pulls out of the smoky haze to slip into a sober daze, but this time it works. The bricks and sunsets are the things that are red, but it's the line of cars that is always black. A somber piano melody builds to a soaring, if solemn, chorus:
I get this feeling that I've
I've been here before
How many lives will I waste?
How many tears must I taste?
Before my freedom?
Death ceases to be the timeless observer as "I See Houses" fades out and Ashcroft sings "Murder, trouble and strife / Turn me into another guy / Don't be late / Don't be late / When I call / When I call / When I call you up." Arresting without being distressing, it's a gorgeous song all around.
"Noise Epic" is exactly that, though not from the outset. It begins rather sparsely, and at more than eight minutes, it's more epic than noise, really. But it builds like nobody's business. Beginning with some sonic snippets and the bare bones of Jones's bass, and eventually adding chunky, chiming guitar, and wails and slashes of sustain against Salisbury's propulsive rhythm. Salisbury's considerable skills are highlighted extensively on this track, particularly during the last three minutes, when the whole song explodes into overdrive. Ashcroft talk-sings most of the lyrics like a beat poet bombing past a blur of countryside while narrating over the scenery of his own inner landscapes. The song downshifts as he asks, "Can I carry that cross for you? / Did you let me down," only to accelerate again as the entire band rushes headlong into frenzy while Ashcroft shouts "I got spirit / We got feeling / You got spirit / Scream if you feel it!" And he does. Then, quite suddenly, "Noise Epic" stops so abruptly it's like aural whiplash. But man, what a ride.
With "Valium Skies," the Verve switches gears again. This a beautiful ballad, flowing in to fill the dramatic void created by the absence of "Noise Epic". "Valium Skies" is also an anthem of sorts. Lush strings, layered vocals and plenty of interesting flourishes may put some listeners in mind of "Bittersweet Symphony", but the only true similarities between the two lie in the grand scopes and heavenly heights of their respective soundscapes.
"Columbo" paints yet another sort of sound scene. Here the band offers an atmospheric thriller, the center of which is Jones's simple, unassailable, descending bass line. It provides a balance point for McCabe's sinister riffs, spine-tingling effects, and Ashcroft's slightly threatening whispery whine, and when the song suddenly switches to a skittering, more noir-ish vibe, it's still the bass that jumps out, like a heartbeat in your throat as you're sneaking from light pools through shadows down a darkened alley.
"Appalachian Springs" is Forth's spacey dénouement. It returns the Verve again to the spacey, cycling, psychedelic sound associated with earlier works, but does so without simply repeating a formula. This not only wraps up the themes of this album, this may be the theme of the album. "I was wondering if we've got that real soul?" Ashcroft muses, "You know the thing we cannot trade or ever own?" I don't think the Verve has to worry about that. Forth may contain a few flaws or forced moments, but it has plenty of soul.