The Verve's 'Urban Hymns' turns 20 in September. Heralding a very active period for the band alongside their equally prolific peers, Blur and Oasis. Somehow though, The Verve’s slightly darker work stood apart from their contemporaries in the Britpop music playground of the '90s. Oasis, Blur and Pulp all had a British sense of humour, of one form or another, that ran as a sort of subtext in everything they did, whereas The Verve had a much more introspective and sometimes melancholic approach to their songwriting.
Despite their leaning towards what could be seen as less marketable subject matter, The Verve's 'Urban Hymns' spent a total of 12 weeks at the top of the UK album chart. Two decades on, we take a look at some of the lyrics that fuelled Richard Ashcroft and co to commercial success.
‘The Drugs Don’t Work’
Now the drugs don't work
They just make you worse
But I know I'll see your face again
Tapping into the nation's mood in the later quarter of 1997, and undeniably one of the darkest lyrics to enter the UK singles chart at number one. The song's subject matter reportedly refers to Richard Ashcroft's own drug habits. With its bleak yet brave simile "Like a cat in a bag, waiting to drown, This time I'm comin' down", its lyrics read like an old American blues standard, miles away from the stereotypical Britpop format.
‘This Is Music’
I stand accused just like you
For being born without a silver spoon
Taken from Urban Hymn's preceding album 'A Northern Soul', 'This Is Music' manages to convey isolation, rejection and inequality without getting into the specifics of the song's hypothetical protagonist. The song wraps up with its assertion that music is the saviour and cure for all, "Jesus never saved me, He'll never save you too, and you know!, I've got a little sticker on the back of my boot, This is music."
Don't dream away your life 'Cause it is mine
Is that a crime this life is mine
Another great from 'A Northern Soul'. With its sweeping strings 'History' opens by setting the scene against a back drop of old Thames before explaining "I've got to tell you my tale, Of how I loved and how I failed, I hope you understand". The song becomes more and more complex towards its doomed romantic conclusion.
How many corners do I have to turn
How many times do I have to learn
All the love I have is in my mind?
Urban Hymns' 'Lucky Man' has a more positive message of self-worth, taking account of things to be grateful for, not least its repeated acknowledgement of personal liberty. "Gotta love that'll never die, No, no, I'm a lucky man".
‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’
Well I never pray
But tonight I'm on my knees yeah
I need to hear some sounds that recognise the pain in me, yeah
I let the melody shine, let it cleanse my mind, I feel free now
But the airways are clean and there's nobody singing to me now
The Urban Hymn that catapulted The Verve into mainstream commercial success and paved the way for 'The Drugs Don't Work', but opening up a messy series of royalty claims in the process with its sampled strings. An ode to the hopeless sufferings of modern life, "Trying to make ends meet, you're a slave to the money then you die."
Despite being regarded, twenty years on, as one of the biggest and most defining songs of the Britpop era, Ashcroft's lyrics again show more lineage to the blues as opposed to the poppier references frequently cited by their Britpop contemporaries.
Richard Ashcroft's songs with The Verve provided a serious alternative to the bouncy sometimes laddish Britpop tropes that ultimately brought the era to an end, delivered with an irreverent swagger that bore a resemblance to a young Mick Jagger. In a landscape where Oasis were playing the part of The Beatles, The Verve perhaps occupied the role of The Stones.
Two decades after its release 'Urban Hymns' remains, as its title suggests, a collection of anthems for the disillusioned, providing musical solace to its followers, with its recurrent affirmations and honest expressions of feelings of futility.