This quartet from Wigan, England, was one of shoegazing’s most dynamic proponents — even if that quality manifested itself in terms of soaring musical sweep rather than onstage theatrics. Amid the swirling, psychedelic music, solid songwriting and frontman Richard Ashcroft’s hypnotic vocals helped the band’s better soundscapes actually go someplace. The five-song ’92 EP (compiling several British singles) does a great job of outlining the Verve’s potential, even if the group doesn’t quite live up to it. “Gravity Grave” and “She’s a Superstar” are catchy enough to prove there’s something behind the musical drift, and “Feel” — a slow, shifting ten-minute epic — never succumbs to self-indulgence.
The band — Ashcroft, guitarist Nick McCabe, bassist Simon Jones and drummer Peter Salisbury — really comes into its own on the wistful and organic-sounding A Storm in Heaven. The album doesn’t provide aural wallpaper, it invites listeners to crawl inside its songs for a breather from reality. The engulfing “Slide Away” offers a chance to do just what its title suggests: it could be considered an anti-anthem of escapist music.
Few bands can put together a worthwhile compilation of mostly unreleased ephemera only one album into their careers, and the Verve proved to be no exception with No Come Down (B Sides & Outtakes). The appealing title track has an interesting Arabian flair, but little else on this nine-song anthology is as compelling as A Storm in Heaven. Also included are a live “Gravity Grave” and acoustic versions of the album’s “Make It Till Monday” and “Butterfly,” which make a good case for the Verve’s versatility, if not for an entire “unplugged” album. The authorized bootleg Voyager 1 (clear blue vinyl, no information other than song titles) contains live versions of six numbers recorded in New York and London.
The quartet meanders more on A Northern Soul, and the album suffers for it. As a whole, the record lacks the mystery and majesty of A Storm in Heaven, and it occasionally gets too grandiose for its own good. “On Your Own” and “No Knock on My Door” are catchy (especially for a band so addicted to sonic swirl), but they lack the atmospheric scope of the Verve’s best work.
Produced by Youth and buttressed by the arrival of a fifth member, Simon Tong, to add even more guitar and keyboards to the wash, Urban Hymns focused all of the band’s strengths into a polished, glowing orb, made the Verve international stars and, naturally enough, proved to be the band’s ruin. “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” which opens the album, is outrageously magnificent, an edifice of sweeping, cinemascopic power lofted on the dancing strings of the Andrew Oldham Orchestra extracting all the jizm from an old Jagger/Richards composition. “I can change I can change I can change,” Ashcroft avers, but you know the gentleman doth protest too much. What follows suffers by comparison, but “The Drugs Don’t Work” is another exquisite sacrifice to the fearsome gods of addiction, and the most beautiful elegy the Spaceman 3 never got around to writing. “Space and Time” uses the strength of strings to augment layers of guitar that balance powerful rhythm roar and Floydian slides. Throughout, Ashcroft is at the top of his game and a soaring sense of artistic confidence elevates the album to greatness.
The title This Is Music: The Singles 92-98 describes the contents pretty accurately. But the CD also includes “All in the Mind,” which actually pre-dates the 1992 debut EP, and two previously unreleased tracks: “This Could Be My Moment” and “Monte Carlo.”
The Verve got their platinum album, their lawsuits and all the other requisite features of long-coming overnight success, all the way to the frontman’s inevitable departure for a solo career. Alone With Everybody detaches that manly voice from the band’s feminine delicacy, replacing the lush torpor with brisk, businesslike studio crud. Ashcroft sounds like he’s in a hurry to get somewhere else, singing competently but without conviction, color or the regal condescension that was at the heart of his appeal. The album is OK without being good; his voice, far more than the songs he wrote for himself to sing or anything with the inconsistent production, is its only notable merit.
Though it doesn’t quite reach the Verve’s heights, Human Conditions is a big improvement over Alone With Everybody. The artist pours more of his soul (read: depressive moods) into this album. On the eight-minute opening track, “Check the Meaning,” he sings, “I’m low, and I’m weak, and I’m lost / I don’t know who I can trust / Paranoia the Destroyer comes knocking on my door / You know the pain drifts to days, turns to nights / But it slowly will subside.” Elsewhere, he sings about agents of release: “I know you can buy it in bottles / And I know you may find it with pills / I know it all so very well.” Later he insists, “Lord, I’ve been trying / Trying to keep myself from crying / And it gets hard, there’s no use denying…” Co-producer Chris Potter sets Ashcroft’s voice into lush surroundings on most of the songs, with Verve-like string sections. Talvin Singh adds urgent Indian percussion to the driving, edgy “Bright Lights”; hints of country music show up on “Paradise,” “The Science of Silence” and “Man on a Mission” (which features backing vocals from another famously depressive artist, Brian Wilson). Throughout the disc, Ashcroft brings both the conviction and the soul that was missing from Alone With Everybody, turning nearly every song into a space where the listener can find solace and release. As he sings in “Paradise,” “When I’m losing control / I play ‘I Am the Cosmos’ / And let the feelings roll.” (The American edition includes the B-side “The Miracle.”)
On Keys to the World, Ashcroft (again working with Potter) sacrifices the moody atmosphere of Human Conditions, focusing instead on more compact songs and high-impact production. “Break the Night With Colour,” “Simple Song,” the Curtis-Mayfield-sampling “Music Is Power” and the rocking opener “Why Not Nothing?” are built around more straightforward, radio-friendly arrangements and instrumentation, designed to jump out rather than draw listeners in. To compete with such musical surroundings, Ashcroft sings with more force and ends up mostly sounding brusque. Only the title track approaches the dreamy grandeur of his best work.
While Ashcroft was toiling on his solo career, the two Simons (Tong and Jones) started the Shining with former Stone Roses guitarist John Squire. (The band bears no relationship, let alone resemblance, to the Swedish goth act of the same name.) The Shining released one album, the Youth-produced True Skies (without Squire in the ranks), before splitting in 2003. Jones went on to tour and record with Irish singer Cathy Davey, while Tong began a long association with Damon Albarn. The guitarist filled in for Graham Coxon onstage during Blur’s Think Tank tour, and (along with Jones) played in Albarn’s cartoon band Gorillaz. Tong also joined Albarn, ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon, former Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen and DJ/producer Danger Mouse to record The Good, the Bad & the Queen in 2007. Meanwhile, Peter Salisbury began performing with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club when original drummer Nick Jago left the band due to substance abuse problems. (Salisbury left BRMC just as quickly, when Jago completed rehab and returned to the fold.) Nick McCabe played guitar on sessions with John Martyn, the Beta Band and the Music.
Despite Ashcroft’s statement in an interview that “you’re more likely to get all four Beatles on stage,” the original quartet reunited in 2007 (having apparently assigned Simon Tong the scapegoat role in its internal drama), touring to enormous acclaim and returning to the studio the following year. The resulting album showed this to be far more than just a cash-in effort; in fact, it secured the Verve’s status as the most artistically successful reunion of the decade. On the self-produced Forth, the Verve builds on the foundation of its ‘90s work without missing a step. The album-opening “Sit and Wonder” rises from a swarm of quick, stinging guitar barbs into a classic Verve number, as Ashcroft pleads “Gimme the light” over the ominous surge of McCabe’s guitar and the roiling rhythm section. From there, a spine-tingling Vocoderized hook announces the next track, “Love Is Noise,” which recasts William Blake: “And will those feet in modern times / Walk on soles that are made in China?” At times, the band does echo its past work a bit, but not without satisfying results: “Rather Be” is a lustrous ballad in the “Sonnet” mode, and “Judas” rewrites “Lucky Man” with surprising wit (“In New York, I was Judas / She said, ‘A double latté for Judas’”). That’s about it for comic relief, though; that song is followed by the noirish “Numbness” and the melancholy “I See Houses.” The longest cut, “Noise Epic,” hints at Sonic Youth in both title and execution: Ashcroft’s sullen voice works its way up from beneath McCabe’s floor of guitars before the song reaches a false ending. Then it kicks back in at double speed, erupting into a jagged two-minute coda. The remaining three tracks, the moody “Columbo” and the beautiful ballads “Valium Skies” and “Appalachian Springs,” bring the album down gracefully. Track for track the strongest album yet made by any of these musicians, Forth returns the Verve to active duty as if the preceding decade had been a bad dream — or, more accurately, an unpleasant intrusion by reality. It’s time to start dreaming again.