The Verve Urban Hymns

The Verve’s Britpop Classic ‘Urban Hymns’ at 25

The Verve launched Urban Hymns 25 years ago as “Bitter Sweet Symphony” became a song for the ages and the record became one of Britpop’s genuine masterpieces

Urban Hymns
The Verve
29 September 1997

Alternative rock band the Verve‘s critically acclaimed Urban Hymns, one of the best-selling records in UK history, is undeniably overshadowed by the legal battle following its lead single’s release in 1997. A “bittersweet” symphony indeed, as the song about “beautiful, tragic moments of life” would serve as a reminder of such moments for over 20 years.

The captivating “symphony”, which samples orchestral arrangement from an Andrew Loog Oldham recording of the Rolling Stones‘ “The Last Time” recorded in 1966, would become a touchy subject between frontperson Richard Ashcroft, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards, considering Ashcroft would not have granted commercial use of his band’s material. However, with the publishing rights in the hands of the Glimmer Twins, the track was licensed far and wide – heard everywhere, from a Nike commercial to the cult classic film, Cruel Intentions.

Along with support from rock radio and MTV, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” received a Grammy nod and is cemented in 1990s Britpop culture as one of Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. Looking back to when the single and Ashcroft hit the streets of London in the music video, he recalled, “It’s such a mind-blowing piece of music. It didn’t sound like anything else. We were just building this great wall of sound.”

Ashcroft lists “Sonnet” among the powerful collection of material in the Verve’s catalog and, like others that have resonated with fans, prefers listeners interpret it however they wish. In an interview with MTV, he said, “I don’t think the listener or fan needs to know anything more than the song. We’re making music, we’re not making cheeseburgers, so I’m not about to give it up on a plate and say what exactly it’s about. I hate it when singers take all the mystery away.” We do know that guitarist Nick McCabe had to “think cleverly” about what he added to the track and was inspired by Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach arrangements. Just don’t draw a comparison to the new wave band Spandau Ballet.

“The Rolling People” is a song that begs to be played live in front of thousands of fans because it can’t help but fit perfectly with lights blaring on stage. When it comes to its meaning, fans will tell you, “don’t ask why… we just know.” This track has all the feels and certainly could have kicked off Urban Hymns, but there was a little song called “Bitter Sweet Symphony” in its way. Another benefit to hearing it live is the crowd chanting “we’re gonna take you home now” as the song fades out is pure bliss. 

“The Drugs Don’t Work” has been known to make grown men cry. Ashcroft said it “was written as a love song” and is widely translated as a tale about succumbing to drug addiction. I interpreted the lyric, “the drugs don’t work, they just make you worse”, as a heartbreaking piece of advice from the POV of someone watching their loved one meet their demise. The void left behind is so painful, “you leave my life, I’m better off dead “… until reuniting again on the other side. “I know I’ll see your face again.” Ashcroft said, “there’s lines in there that are personal to me and personal to someone close to me.” There are several YouTube videos showcasing people’s reactions to listening to the song for the first time if you’d like to witness the power of music.

Halfway through Urban Hymns, “Space and Time” says, “we have existence, and it’s all we share” and would later serve as the title of a documentary that followed the band as they reunited on tour in 2007. The behind-the-scenes footage was gifted to fans who purchased Forth, the Verve’s fourth and final album, on iTunes. Like all music, space and time exist objectively. Perhaps the song title was chosen as an artistic representation due to the complexity of these universal forms of matter. Regardless, there’s heartfelt emotion behind lyrics like “can you just tell me it’s all right / Can you comfort me tonight / Make it all seem fine.”

“Lucky Man”, which Ashcroft says was inspired by his wife, is about feeling fortunate once you’ve reached the point in a relationship when you’re “free”. It deepens your self-love as you discover who you are (and the wonderful things about yourself) through spending time with your partner. Even when you’re most vulnerable – naked – you feel no shame. “We got a love that never dies. I got a love that’ll never die.” On the making of the song, McCabe said, “I picked the guitar up, and it just came out … We knew it was a great song.” And as to the rock riff snuck in… “The song demanded it.”

In the hopeful “This Time”, Ashcroft dwells on his past the way many of us do. “All I see are things I could’ve changed / I should have done.” We all need to go through something dark, and mistakes must be made for us to see the light later. Luckily, there’s still time to find your way in life, to “rise into the light”. This song demonstrates maturity, letting go of the past and things we cannot change while being optimistic about the future, appreciating that there’s always “another dream, another chance”. That’s how we grow.

Urban Hymns‘s fond farewell (“Come On”) takes the listener on an unexpected journey. Things start on brand with the rest of the record until Ashcroft declares he might be on the verge of insanity. The song abruptly changes its tune as he spits out lyrics laced with angst, “come on… there’s only one life… let it go” before crying out, “this is a big f*ck you!” This can be considered a therapy session.

If you had the album on CD and left your room to take a bathroom break and grab a snack following “Come On”, you’d be back in time to be surprised by the hidden track “Deep Freeze”, which loads out of nowhere about six minutes later. At first, you hear unsavory noises, which the Verve have referred to as “urban madness”. That explains the unhinged cohesion of the preceding track. Facets of such madness were initially intended to open the album, but the idea was later scrapped.  Thank goodness we are soon met with a gentle, ambient soundscape, akin to rebirth, as a baby persistently cries out before Urban Hymns comes to its second and final close.