Taken as the final part of a trilogy of albums, while Storm In Heaven is an overlooked gem and A Northern Soul the ‘difficult’ second album, Urban Hymns is the most accessible of the three without drifting into the MOR of subsequent releases and solo projects, and draws a line under a remarkable early career trajectory which saw The Verve go from ‘Mad Richard’ space jams to late-Britpop pioneers in four short years.
The ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ saga is well documented and many argued at the time the album wouldn’t have suffered if they had instead left it as a standalone single but the sonics on the remastered version are the essence of a remarkable album and a link to what came before. The introduction of an acoustic guitar on ‘Sonnet’ may have surprised some but the more introspective nature of some of the lyrics allows for that while the breakdown on ‘Rolling People’ is the nearest thing we get to pre-‘The’ Verve.
Harshly considered by some to be the first Ashcroft solo work, Nick McCabe’s incredible guitar work throughout and clipped band jams on ‘Rolling People’ and ‘Come On’ are more coherent and thematic than anything the band had already released. Urban Hymns is an album of huge highs while the gentler segments, such as ‘Catching The Butterfly’ and ‘One Day’ enable the incredible percussion and Simon Jones’ amazing basslines, and are less of a polaric comedown and more of an apposite accompaniment they had previously only hinted at. For an album that came out just a few short months after OK Computer it is equally as dynamic.
Arguably only ‘Neon Wilderness’ could have been dropped but on the second half of the album ‘Space And Time’ remains utterly absorbing while ‘Weeping Willow’ in particular, sees the band bring all of the aforementioned elements together in a feat of Britpop alchemy. Read as a deathbed-confessional or spiritual handover that, alongside ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’, it touches on the loss of Ashcroft’s biological father when he was just 11 and his fractious relationship with his deeply religious stepfather. And the, perhaps subconscious, Spiritualized influence on ‘This Time’ and ‘Velvet Morning
’ highlight the other great conflict in the singer’s life at this time as he was dating (his now wife but ex-squeeze of Jason Pierce) Kate Radley and make this album so much more than the coke-fuelled histrionics of some of its peers.
Of the bonus material, the Deluxe CD version paradoxically begins to document the band’s slide towards the banal fashions of the time. The coveted but underwhelming James Lavelle remix, funk and soul experiments, and forced jams that don’t come anywhere near the gold standard of the album but for completists are an essential addendum and musical insight into a band who were seemingly always on the brink of imploding. However, having already split up once by this time they can be forgiven for perhaps being less focused when it came to B-sides and the live material included here including a DVD of the band’s seminal Haigh Hall show is a timely reminder of what a formidable live act they were.
These anniversary reissues aren’t always necessary but in the case of Urban Hymns a timely reminder of an unmissable chapter in the 1990s story.
Urban Hymns 20th anniversary edition is released on 1st September through Virgin/UMC.