Richard Ashcroft – Vocals, Rhythm
– Nick McCabe – Lead guitar
– Simon Tong – Rhythm guitar, Keyboards
– Simon Jones – Bass
– Peter Salisbury – Drums
—— Track Listing ——
1: Bittersweet Symphony (5:58)
2: Sonnet (4:21)
3: The Rolling People (7:01)
4: The Drugs Don’t Work (5:05)
5: Catching the Butterfly (6:26)
6: Neon Wilderness (2:37)
7: Space and Time (5:36)
8: Weeping Willow (4:49)
9: Lucky Man (4:53)
10: One Day (5:03)
11: This Time (3:50)
12: Velvet Morning (4:57)
13: Come On (Includes hidden track “Deep Freeze”) (15:15)
—— Background ——
Before Urban Hymns, The Verve has release two other studio albums, A Storm in Heaven (1993) and A Northern Soul (1995) and experienced some mild success. After the release of A Northern Soul, infighting within band caused them to break up, however this was quickly reversed as frontman Richard Ashcroft reformed the group, with old and new members. This new incarnation of the band began to write and record what would eventually become Urban Hymns. Instead of creating songs from jams, like the band do on their previous albums, for this record they focused on taking time with their songs and finely tuning them to be the best they could be, and as a result the album came together slowly. The album was recorded at Olympic Studios in London, England between October 1996 and May 1997, eventually being released in September 1997.
The album was released towards the end of the britpop era, but is still classified as a britpop album. Despite this, the record does not sound like your typical britpop album, and draws inspiration from many different musical styles. These range from ballads (“Sonnet” and “The Drugs Don’t Work”), all out rockers (“The Rolling People” and “Come On”) to psychedelic (“Catching the Butterfly”) and even ambient (“Deep Freeze”). Maybe because this album is so dynamic is one of the reasons that album went on to see enormous success upon its release.
The albums lyrical content takes in all different aspects of everyday life, with Ashcroft’s lyrics exploring how life goes on no matter what, drug use, relationships and growing up.
The cover for the album was taken in Richmond Park in London, and simply shows a shot of the band sitting on the grass. Other images used in the album art were also taken here (as seen below).
—— Singles ——
In this section I’ll be going over the albums singles, discussing their quality as singles and giving my thoughts on them. 4 singles were released for Urban Hymns.
1: Bittersweet Symphony
Released: 16 June 1997
Peak UK singles chart position: #2
The albums single is also the bands most well known song. The song is instantly recognisable to anyone who lives in England, as British TV channel ITV plays the song before England’s international football matches. Rolling Stone magazine and NME names the track single of the year in 1997. But the looped violin section that makes the song instantly recognisable is also its biggest downfall. Let me explain. It’s a very long and complicated story, but it boils down to the strings being a sample that former The Rolling Stones manager Allen Klein owned the rights too. Richard Ashcroft was given the green light use the sample, but then Klein said that he broke their agreement and sued. The dispute was settled out of court but Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were added to the writing credits, so The Stones profited from the track.
Despite this, the track has gone on to be the song that defined the band, and became a live staple. The songs lyrical content describe life as a symphony, but a bittersweet one as you have to conform to the rules and regulations of society and governing bodies.
”Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony this life/ Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to the money then you die.”
2: The Drugs Don’t Work
Released: 1 September 1997
Peak UK singles chart position: #1
After the lead singles symphonic prowess gave everyone the first taste of this incredible record, the second single the band opted to release was a somber ballad track. Now I think that this was the right thing for the band to do, they had shown the upbeat lighter side of the album, and it was time make things darker. As it turned out, this was the right thing to do, as this track became the bands first UK number 1 single, and it’s not hard to see why. It centred around an acoustic guitar chord progression, and as the track moves on we get another taste of those strings frost introduced on Bittersweet Symphony.
This song had been written in 1995 and was performed on the bands tour for their second album “A Northern Soul”. The track, as the title suggests, is about Richard Ashcroft‘s drug use, as he explained in a 1995 interview:
“There’s a new track I’ve just written, It goes ‘the drugs don’t work, they just make me worse, and I know I’ll see your face again’. That’s how I’m feeling at the moment. They make me worse, man. But I still take ‘em. Out of boredom and frustration you turn to something else to escape.”
The track was released in the UK the day after the death of royal family member Princess Diana, and English tv channel Channel 4 noted in their programme “100 greatest #1 singles”, that the song “Unintentionally captures the spirit of the nation” on that day.
”Cause baby, ooh, if heaven falls, I’m coming too / Just like you said, if you leave my life, I’m better off dead”
3: Lucky Man
Released: 24 November 1997
Peak UK singles chart position: #7
After the somber tones of The Drugs Don’t Work, the band flipped that vibe upon its head once more with their next single, the upbeat and cheery Lucky Man. This track may be my personal favourite out of the albums singles, due to the highly infectious vocal melodies and the excellent guitar work and sweeping string sections that elevate the track to that next level. The song has two different music videos, a UK one (the one shown above) and a different one for the US, which can be found on YouTube.
The song was another successful single, going to number 7 on the UL charts. U2 frontman Bono has cited the song as one of 6 songs released between 1986 and 2006 that he wishes he had written.
”Happiness / More or less / It’s just a change in me / Something in my liberty / Oh, my, my”
Released: 2 March 1998
Peak UK singles chart position: #74
Sonnet was the fourth and final single to be released from this album, and like Bittersweet Symphony it has a bit of a story. From looking at this tracks peak uk chart position you may wondering “why is it so much lower than all the others?”, well, there’s a reason for this, and it’s not because the single bombed, because it did receive massive radio air play and has become one of the bands staple tracks.
At the start of 1998, the bands label wanted them to put out one more single from the album, but the band didn’t really want to. After the label persisted that they release a single, the band decided to release sonnet as the next single, but in a format that meant it wouldn’t chart. The band released the single as part of a set of four 12 inch vinyls, and was limited to 5000 copies. However, fans turned to buying an imported version of the single which meant that it did end up charging in the UK, at number 74.
The track itself is another ballad, as the name suggests, and features more acoustic guitar and string arrangements, in almost the same structure as The Drugs Don’t Work, but in a much lighter tone.
”My friend and me / Looking through her red box of memories / Faded I’m sure / But love seems to stick in her veins you know”
—— Deep Cuts ——
Now that I’ve discussed the albums singles, I’m now going to go over what I think are the more important deep cuts on this album. All the tracks on here are amazing, but I’ve selected a few that are must listens.
The Rolling People: This track is the first song that shakes up the albums structure, as the first two tracks on the album, Bittersweet Symphony and Sonnet are lighter tracks, but The Rolling People is an all out rocker that gives you the first taste of the bands energy. The lyrics on this one, like most of the album, seem to concern life and living it to the fullest.
Catching the Butterfly: This track showcases the bands psychedelic side, with a driving bass line and dreamy instrumentals. The lyrics to this one talk about Ashcroft’s childhood and chasing his dreams:
”As though you were born / And so you thought / The future’s ours /To keep and hold
A child within / Has healing ways / It sees me through / My darkest days
I’m gonna keep catching that butterfly / In that dream of mine / I’m gonna keep catching that butterfly / In that dream of mine”
The child in the song says he’s going to keep chasing after the butterfly in his dreams, which in this case is metaphor for following ones dreams, and the instrumentals in this track make it feel like a dream.
Space and Time: This track is just simply beautiful, it takes you to another world with its airy guitars and excellent vocal melodies. The lyrics here seem to be dealing with a relationship between two people that are only together because they’re scared of being alone, which is evident in the line “We have existence and it’s all we share”. This is a true album highlight and one of my favourites from the record.
—— Legacy ——
At the time of this albums release in 1997, it was included in many publications end of year best of lists, and even topped some of them. The album topped the UK album chart at number 1 and stayed there for 12 weeks. It went on to become one of the best selling albums of that year.
Over time, the album has received even more acclaim, being appointed on many lists as one of the best albums ever made. The album has gone on to sell over ten million copies worldwide and has become 19th best selling album ever in the UK. The album achieved over three million sales alone in the UK and went on to be certified 11x platinum. Songs from the album have been used countless times in popular culture and the album is still revered as a classic to this day.