Released in the fall of 1997, Urban Hymns is The Verve’s most commercially successful album to date. After releasing a pair of albums in the early ’90s and enduring a break-up, the timeless Urban Hymns was spawned by the rekindled chemistry between vocalist Richard Ashcroft and guitarist Nick McCabe. The recording sessions for Urban Hymns were a largely drug-induced procession, and the influence of those drugs is overtly present in the sound of the record. Ashcroft’s vocals are sung with all the lethargy of someone who’s on his deathbed, yet when his voice peaks there is an unquestionable passion and conviction. It is in Ashcroft’s sense of absenteeism and the spacey nature of the record’s instrumentation that gives the album its sweeping, atmospheric feeling.
The majority of the success of Urban Hymns is centered on the opening track and first single, “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” The song, which borrowed samples from a symphonic version The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time,” is The Verve’s most recognizable and successful track. It’s also the source of controversy in that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards commandeered full rights to the song and collected all the profits generated from its commercial use, something that may have been at the root of the band’s eventual second and most lengthy break-up in 1999. “Bitter Sweet Symphony” reached number two on the UK singles chart and gained considerable airplay in the United States and throughout the world, serving as the theme song for the 1998 Winter Olympics. There is more than a little irony surrounding the song, as the orchestral samples of the song leant it to be uplifting while Ashcroft’s lyrics are less than optimistic. Time, however, would prove it to be a fittingly titled song. It was bittersweet as The Verve’s most prolific song, catapulting itself into the realm of the most enduring indie anthems of all time, though they were deprived of the royalty payday that comes with such an astronomically popular song.
“Bitter Sweet Symphony” is merely the climax with which Urban Hymns begins. The supporting tracks on the record have tremendous depth and emotionalism. After the symphonic highs of the opening track you’re lulled into a musical hypnotism, each song flowing cohesively into the next without superseding one another. Among the standouts on Urban Hymns is the love song “The Drugs Don’t Work” which finds a melancholy Ashcroft pining, “I hope you’re thinking of me/ as you lay down on your side/ now the drugs don’t work/ they just make you worse/ but I know I’ll see your face again.” Other singles from Urban Hymns include “Sonnet” and “Lucky Man,” a song momentarily reminiscent of Cat Stevens’ “Wild World,” in which Ashcroft reaches a near shout when describing the state of his mood (“Happiness/ more or less/ it’s just a change in me/ something in my liberty.“)
Urban Hymns reaches the greatness that Ashcroft had boasted he would aspire to in the early, tumultuous years of The Verve. Even when the appeal of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” has subsided the shoegazing goes on. Urban Hymns is an album that correlates to an out-of-mind experience. You can sit through the entire album and let the melody steer your brain away from deep thought, soothing your body whilst you lay motionless with cucumber slices stuck to your eyelids, knowing that when the music subsides, you’ve been touched spiritually.