If You Want a Show, Just Let Me Know, and I'll Sing in Your Ear Again - Urban Hymns turns 20

How many different versions of “The Drugs Don’t Work,” “The Rolling People,” or the seminal “Bittersweet Symphony” do you need in your life?

The Verve and Universal Music are banking that you are a Verve completest, and that you need them all—you need all the versions. You need live versions and extended instrumental jams and rough demos. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, and continuing the series of massive Verve reissues, the band’s magnum opus, Urban Hymns, has been remastered and rereleased as part of a sprawling 60 song set, that includes b-sides and myriad live performances.

Urban Hymns came out at an interesting time for the ‘Brit pop’ movement. Radiohead completely transcended out of it with OK Computer, as did Blur, to some extent, becoming a bit of a novelty act in the States with the now iconic “Song 2.” However, if Oasis’ maligned Be Here Now—bloated and excessive—served as a death knell for a specific time and place, for the subgenre and movement, Urban Hymns is a gigantic last gasp of life before the end.

The thing to understand about The Verve is just how tumultuous and mercurial they were as a band. They all hated each other—now I think they all just hate frontman Richard Ashcroft. The band pretty much broke up after each record, then subsequently got back together, and the dichotomy in their audiences across the ocean is fascinating. They were absolutely huge in their homeland, but were stuck playing mostly 1,000+ capacity clubs in the United States, even after “Bittersweet Symphony” propelled them to regular airplay on MTV.

20 years later, Urban Hymns, for the most part, still works—it’s a record I’ve played regularly throughout my life and one I came to appreciate more and more as I entered into adulthood and was no longer the 14 year old who bought it at a K-Mart with Christmas money. It’s a lengthy, dense record that never really wears out its welcome, despite its running time, and it successfully bridges what The Verve tried to do musically; finding the right balance between the acoustic, dramatic balladry, and the woozy, epicurean psychedelics of their earlier work.

As is the case with many remasters, it’s slightly difficult to hear the difference between this edition and the original. Things may seem a little louder overall, and there may be slightly more clarity in the mix, but it’s not nearly as robust or amazing of a remastering job as, say, that of the OK Computer reissue from earlier this year. With that being said, the reason to give a listen to this reissue is for its supplemental material—or, at least, the b-sides and unreleased session tracks that are included in the set—some of which are rather impressive and could have fit in well with the album.

Among those standouts include the melancholic, acoustic strums of “So Sister,” the soaring “Lord I Guess I’ll Never Know,” the moderately saccharine strings of “Never Wanna See You Cry,” and the hazy shuffling of “Monte Carlo.” But not everything is as successful or as listenable—“This Could Be My Moment” is entirely way too poppy for the band, and sounds out of place; and a number of the more psychedelic-leaning tracks are less charming than those that made it onto the proper version of Urban Hymns, and can become weighed down by self-indulgence—e.g., both “Echo Bass,” and “Stamped” aren’t unlistenable per se, but they lack the personality that something like “Catching The Butterfly” has.

Outside of all of this, there are a number of iterations of the popular songs from Urban Hymns—“Bittersweet Symphony,” for example, appears five times if you spring for the 60 track edition, appearing in its original glory, in a miscast remix from UNKLE’s James Lavelle, in trip-hop leaning instrumental form (which is actually pretty good), in a curious ‘extended’ version that expands the song from six minutes out to eight, and then a triumphant 10 minute live edition, recorded in 1998 at Haigh Hall.

“The Drugs Don’t Work” appears four times—along with the original album version, you get a crude early demo, an acoustic live version taken from the BBC ‘evening sessions,’ and a live take, also from the band’s set at Haigh Hall, which appears in almost its entirety here. Spanning 15 songs, the set relies heavily on its more psychedelic, heady material early on, making it a bit of a long, patience-testing listen at times. Also, Ashcroft’s voice, as good as it can be, can’t make it through the whole show; he starts to sound pretty ragged and exhausted at times after the halfway point.

And if an almost entire concert wasn’t enough for you, there is more—the final 11 songs alternate between material recorded in Washington D.C. at the 9:30 Club, or at Brixton and Manchester Academies.  

I think it goes without saying that the latter half of the Urban Hymns reissue is for hardcore fans of the band only—the kind that are totally cool with shelling out between $60 and $100 or more for the elaborate boxed sets that include all kinds of ephemera.

Interestingly enough, there is apparently more, though not included in this package.

Allegedly leaked online by a member of the band, commenting that the songs are “better free than buried,” and that “one man wanted to rob the fans of these tracks,” additional session outtakes have surfaced on the internet, creating an additional of depth to both the album itself, as well as the resentment the members of The Verve feel toward one another.

The 13 track Unreleased or Scrapped Outtake collection does have some minor overlap with the proper reissue, though I get the impression that around 11 songs from this set were previously unheard and are being unearthed for the first time—including a rather downcast and hypnotic track called “Sweet and Sour,” and a rollicking, bass heavy, dreamy song “Jalfrezi,”—both of which sound properly mixed, leading me to believe they made it a little farther along in the process than some of the others included, like “Tina Turner,” where Ashcroft’s vocals are buried in the mix.

Some things from 1997 have not aged well, but for better or for worse, Urban Hymns has, which is surprising, since it’s frontloaded with a majority of its hits. The back half, full of swooning ‘deep cuts,’ are all relatively enjoyable. The album itself, and the tense history behind it is one of those rare occurrences where substance abuse, egos, and inter-group tension actually work to help the band create something incredible, which is a sharp contrast to what happened with Oasis’ Be Here Now.

The ballads—like the sweeping grandeur of “Lucky Man,” or the tumultuous drama of “Sonnet” and the classic “The Drugs Don’t Work”—while all a little overwrought with emotion at times, are still great and accessible, and they do what they are supposed to do—evoke a reaction out of you. “The Drugs Don’t Work,” specifically, is still one of the saddest songs of the last 20 years.

The psychedelics? Well, that’s how The Verve started out. A Storm in Heaven teeters into being a shoegaze album at times, and it wasn’t until A Northern Soul that the band, specifically Ashcroft, found slightly more focus as a songwriter. The balance of radio-ready Brit-pop anthems and lengthy, druggy jams is an interesting thing, but it works, and there’s enough give and take from each. And “The Rolling People” is still slays, and is one of the most fun songs the band released.

Then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room.

“Bittersweet Symphony” opens up the album—not so much a bait and switch, but there’s nothing like it on the rest of Urban Hymns, or is there anything else like it in the band’s canon. Introduced during the Haigh Hall show as a ‘song for the people,’ it’s an anthem to end all anthems. It’s huge, bombastic, and triumphant—but it’s also despondent: “You try to make ends meet. You’re a slave to money, then you die,” Ashcroft croons. And he’s kind of right, you know?

The song made them a name in the United States—not gigantic, but bigger than they had been before. But for everything “Bittersweet Symphony” gave them, it also took.

The reason it doesn’t sound like anything else on the album is because the whole thing is pretty much structured around a sample of an orchestral recording of The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time.” Using possibly too much of the sample, and not crediting Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as co-writers, things turned ugly once the song gained popularity, and what was originally an apparently 50/50 split between The Verve and the holding company that owned the copyright on “The Last Time” turned into the band losing 100% of the royalties from the song.

The Verve imploded by the middle of 1999—certainly the legal problems over “Bittersweet Symphony” contributed, but the resentment and in-fighting (sometimes becoming physical), continued substance abuse issues, problems on the road all boiled over, with Ashcroft attempting a solo career in 20001, and the other members of the band all pursing other avenues. Urban Hymns would have been one hell of a high note for the band to go out on, but much to the surprise of everyone involved, The Verve regrouped in 2007 and released what is looked at as their final album, the maligned and aptly titled Forth. 

Forth was a polarizing album upon its release—the Pitchfork review was especially hard on it, giving it a 5 out of 10, saying they tried, and failed (again) to sound like the biggest band in the world. Other reviews were slightly more favorable, and it’s not the kind of attempt at a reunion and new album that is going to damage a legacy, but it’s also not the kind of record that really sticks. It may, despite its best efforts, become a footnote on the band’s rollercoaster of a career. Personally, I still think Forth holds up relatively well, and turning 10 next year, I will hope the band continues its reissue campaign through to the end.

It’s just a different kind of album (slightly more pop leaning)—a night and day difference between Urban Hymns, the same way it was more focused and larger than life sounding in comparison to A Northern Soul. It’s tough to really find all those elements and make everything fall together the right way—Urban Hymns captured that feeling. It may have been a once in a lifetime album, and this massive reissue does its best to add new layers to a story you know by heart.

1- It seems worth mentioning that while Ashcroft’s solo debut was mostly well received, I can’t say the same for subsequent efforts, including a confusing record released in 2010 that was, in part, a collaboration with hip-hop producer No I.D.