In late September, 1997 The Verve released Urban Hymns on Hut Records (Virgin). Preceding the albums first single (and the album) the band embarked on a very low-key tour and played at The Jug Of Ale and other small pubs / clubs throughout England. With an invitation to the gig in Moseley from a Record Label rep I decided I was too tired that weekday evening – this would prove to be a huge error on my behalf. Urban Hymns would sell almost 11 million copies and it’s fair to say that at the time of the bands previous two albums no one would have predicted the level of success /sales their third album would achieve.
I have always mused that had Oasis released a third album akin to Urban Hymns people would have really stood up and taken notice. The reality, of course, is that Oasis, to a large extent messed up their own legacy. Even had they just split after (What’s The Story) Morning Glory they would have two iconic albums and be far more respected than they are today. There’d probably be a generational craving for a reformation akin to the recent Stone Roses resurrection too. Be Here Now precedes Urban Hymns by a mere month but the damage, for Oasis – was already done.
So, the man Cast No Shadow was written about ironically breezes past Oasis as casually as his walk in the Bittersweet Symphony video. It’s all too easy. The Verve put aside in-band issues which had temporarily split the group and re recruited Nick McCabe (guitar). The album is about the music not the egos. Bittersweet Symphony would become an instant alternative anthem and still somehow retain total credibility. When Rolling Stones lawyers noticed a certain symphonic sample had been ‘overused’ Richard Ashcroft let the Stones have 100% of the money for the song and the writing credits quoting the lyrics about being a slave to money then you die. I’ve always respected this stance and the avoidance of The Verve retorting to Keith Richards suggesting ‘when they write a better song than us they can keep all of the money’. Again the reality was The Verve had written a song that resonated with millions and The Stones were a totally spent force as far as writing new material was/is concerned.
Urban Hymns is no one trick pony. Throughout it holds the listener even if generally it’s not that well reflected upon at present (2014). The Drugs Don’t Work hit the Number 1 spot in the singles chart at the time of Diana Spencer’s death and I can recall many record shop customers, from a wide range of musical tastes, stating the song fitted the mood of the Nation. I’m no royalist – but they were spot on.
The depth of following singles Lucky Man and the raw controlled power of Sonnet ensured the album would stay at the top of the album charts for 14 weeks. It was a surprise crossover on a huge scale and sold by the bucketload. Beyond the singles (which Virgin marketed very well) Urban Hymns has ‘hidden’ gems such as Space And Time which would be far stronger than standard album tracks by other outfits at the time.
Urban Hymns can easily be found for £1 in charity shops these days and is a record that I feel will come back as things do soon. Many true Verve fans will cite their earlier albums as being their true work. Urban Hymns will always be the album the band, or any solo entity from the band, will be remembered for and rightly so. The final nail in the BritPop coffin would prove to be glorious swan song. An antidote to swagger yet with swagger all of its very own…