Album Reviews: The Verve - A Storm in Heaven and A Northern Soul reissues
When it comes to reissues, it usually makes sense to release the album in question when it is celebrating some kind of milestone anniversary—10th or 20th; in some cases, 25th, etc. To do it on odd years seems strange. It’s like, couldn’t you get your shit together in time to do this in 2013? No? Okay, well here’s the 23rd anniversary edition—it comes off like a bit of a desperate cash grab when it isn’t tied to something more concrete.
Such is the case with the massive reissue campaign from the British band The Verve—who have re-released their first two albums, 1993’s A Storm in Heaven and 1995’s A Northern Soul; each collection comes housed in a box containing various ephemera, and the music is spread throughout three CDs—one dedicated to each album (remastered, of course), along side two discs of b-sides, live tracks, and unreleased odds and ends compiled for the Verve’s hard core fans—of which, in 2016, I have to wonder if there are any. The band itself fizzled out three times throughout its career: once shortly after the release of A Northern Soul, a second time two years after the commercial breakthrough Urban Hymns, and a third time in 2009, following their maligned reunion album.
So why delve into the band’s back catalog and archives now, 23 years after the debut, and 21 years after its follow up?
I gotta tell you, six CDs of music from The Verve is a lot of Verve. Like, the whole thing is pretty overwhelming at times.
In looking at both studio albums, they capture separately what The Verve ultimately ended up finding a perfect blend of on Urban Hymns. A Storm in Heaven finds the band still coming out of the shoegaze sound that had been popularized just two years earlier, and incorporating that with strong psychedelic elements. On the other hand, A Northern Soul almost sheds all of that completely, favoring songs that have a lot more of a clear “pop” structure, as well as noticeably moving frontman Richard Ashcroft’s vocals higher up in the mix.
Time hasn’t been unkind to an album like A Storm in Heaven, but it is definitely a product of the era. The remaster does what most remasters do—it makes things louder. All kidding aside, the album benefits slightly from the reissue treatment, adding a little more depth to the album’s layers, and overall, providing some sonic clarity that the 1993 original lacks.
Musically, the album meanders; a lot. I guess that’s the psychedelic influence coming through. There are moments where it sounds like The Verve are on the cusp of pulling it together and focusing on something that resembles a concise song, like “Blue” or “Slide Away,” but a majority of A Storm in Heaven is a lot of lengthy noodling that, while impressive at times, it mostly results in nothing that demands your direct attention—it’s all to easy to just kind of check out at points throughout while the music fades into the background.
“A new decade—the radio plays the sounds we made,” Ashcroft bellows on the opening track to A Northern Soul, “A New Decade.” Even now, over twenty years removed, it seems like a wink to the growing “Brit-pop” movement including Blur and Oasis. A dramatic departure from the wandering psychedelics of A Storm in Heaven, A Northern Soul is more “listener friendly,” and is exponentially more in line with the music of their peers at this point in contemporary popular music.
Sonically, time had been slightly gentler to A Northern Soul—the originally 1995 mastering still sounds fine in 2016, so the reissue just bumps things up a little, but it is not as noticeable of a difference as it is on Storm. And of the two original albums, A Storm in Heaven found the band an audience, but it’s still a difficult, slightly boring listen and upon diving into these reissues, A Northern Soul is a more captivating and enjoyable listening experience as the band gets into varied dynamics, like the acoustic-lead dramatics of “On Your Own” and “History.”
With that being said there are still four more discs of b-sides, live tracks, demos, and rarities to cover.
The supplemental material on A Storm in Heaven collects material from The Verve’s self-titled 1992 EP, as well as b-sides, a number of live versions or BBC Radio sessions, and two unreleased songs—“Shoeshine Girl” and “South Pacific,” both of which sound slightly out of place given what the rest of this collection sounds like. Cited as being from the “Sawmills Sessions,” the songs are left over from the original recording sessions for Storm. “South Pacific” is the more listenable of the two—slow burning and sweeping, it hints at what was to come from the band.
The additional discs on A Northern Soul include b-sides from this era for the band, along with additional studio outtakes from the time the album was recorded, including a very early, loose version of what would go on to become “The Rolling People,” as well as more BBC Radio sessions.
For the casual fan of The Verve—someone who really liked Urban Hymns when it came out but hasn’t thought about the band much since then, or didn’t hop on board their short lived reunion train, or hasn’t gotten into Ashcroft’s solo stuff, et. al—well, these expansive reissues are probably not for you. However, revisiting these first two albums is completely worthwhile. Even for slightly more than a casual fan (someone like myself, maybe) the additional material is a bit much. Some of the b-sides and unreleased songs are interesting to hear (specifically the material included on A Northern Soul) but the radio sessions and live tracks are for the truly die-hard.
Neither album is perfect—A Storm in Heaven shows a young band with a lot of potential, and A Northern Soul shows a lot of growth, as well as a group on the cusp of something great, even if they destroyed themselves getting there.