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Thursday, 15 November 2012

The Verve - Urban Hymns (1997)

In order to subsidize my nights out during my college days, I would take my guitar and busk on the streets of Wolverhampton. My favourite spot was on an enclosed bridge that used to link the Wulfrun and Mander shopping centres – it had a high volume of people walking past, the acoustics were great, and there was no chance of getting wet.

This was the days before EMA, so getting some sort of part-time work was essential. This was easier said than done for a visually impaired teenager trying to get work in a town that was economically downbeat at the best of times. I worked for a while in Littlewoods during the busy Christmas period, but this was only a two-month contract; and I worked for Subway as a ‘sandwich artist’, but after two shifts was fired for ‘not learning the till quick enough’ (they had me on prep most of the time). Other job applications didn’t seem to go anywhere, so I turned to busking.

I wasn’t the most confident person as a teenager, but I think that performing in front of people really allowed me to come out of my shell. I used to love the characters I’d meet, the strangers who I would speak to who’d open up to me and tell me their stories. There were a couple of characters who I got to know: ‘Barry the tramp’ (as he was affectionately known) would often talk to me about the weird and wonderful things that had happened over the years in the town centre, and a guy who was known simply as ‘The Cowboy’ spent his days wandering around the town centre saying “howdy” to people and would often talk to me about the presence of evil. It was all very strange, but somehow life-affirming at the same time.

My repertoire was pretty limited, as I performed songs that were easy to play and easy on the voice. Songs by the Manic Street Preachers, Nirvana and The Stone Roses featured quite heavily in my sets, but I would always resort to a few hits by the Verve if things were going slow: ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’, ‘Lucky Man’ and ‘Sonnet’ were easy to perform and always seemed to get passers-by coughing up their cash to cover my night out at Blast Off.

I haven’t listened to Urban Hymns for over a decade, but it’s an album that I used to love. ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ kicks things off with a swagger. The song still sounds pretty stunning today, with its sweeping strings and Richard Ashcroft’s high baritone vocals. It’s unfortunate that the band don’t receive a penny in royalties from this song due to a strange quirk in publishing law that doesn’t seem to recognize the potential for recontextualised samples to create something new and unique. ‘Sonnet’ is quite dull until it hits its anthemic chorus, and then suddenly the song becomes quite moving. ‘The Rolling People’ sounds like the Verve trying to capture the energy of early-Oasis tunes, even going as far as to use a similar guitar set-up and solos which could have been lifted from Oasis’s ‘Slide Away’. ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ is still heartbreaking. The line “like a cat in a bag waiting to drown” is such a moving image that highlights Ashcroft’s ability to produce a perfect line when he wants. ‘Catching the Butterfly’ is awesome: lysergic guitars, swooping vocals and a bass groove to die for. The trippy sounds continue as the album moves onto ‘Neon Wilderness’ a song that is sparse, unstructured and incredibly strange, with downbeat drums, echoic guitar sounds and vocals that are left to drift around the mix. ‘Space and Time’ used to be my favourite song on the album, but now much of the song sounds quite boring. ‘Weeping Willow’ is the single that never was: this is a great song. I love the way the wah-wah guitars reverberate and feed-back over the mix. ‘Lucky Man’ sounds incredibly naff. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that it has been overplayed in the decade and a half since its release. It also lacks a lot of the interesting fret-work that makes many other songs by the Verve sound so engaging. ‘One Day’ is another ballad that plods along without doing much of interest; I found myself almost drifting to sleep during this one, and it’s got nothing to do with the fact that I’ve got a seven week old baby. ‘This Time’ is still as uplifting as I remember and manages to pull me out of the soporific feeling created by ‘One Day’. There’s a lot going on in the song – interesting beats, bursts of cool guitar, and layered vocals – but everything sounds balanced and manages not to sound cluttered. ‘Velvet Morning’ is incredibly dreary, with its country-tinged guitars and sleepy vocals that bring to mind bands like Mazzy Star and Mojave 3, only not as good. Album-closer ‘Come On’ is excellent. I remember on my first day of university putting this on the juke box of our students’ union forgetting that the song had about 10 minutes of silence followed by some weird whale noises as part of the same track.

On the whole I enjoyed revisiting this album, but it’s not one I can see myself really wanting to listen to in the future. It’s been a while since I’ve culled an album, so I think it’s time to send Urban Hymns to the charity shop.

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KiBe said...

I loved 'this time' , was my favourite and was basically the only track I listened off it for ages

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