THE VERVE A Northern Soul (Hut)

Being the album that almost finished them off for good, "A Northern Soul" can’t help but carry even greater gravitas in these post-"Urban Hymns" times than it did on release in 1995, when it was cruelly ignored (and I’m as guilty as any recent convert to the Wigan band’s cause) despite a plethora of enthusiastic press reviews. But with the luxury of hindsight, this is where it all started going spectacularly right for The Verve, musically if not emotionally.

Branching out from the messy new psychedelia of their debut "A Storm In Heaven", the band’s songwriting started grappling with everyday kitchen-sink dramas like relationships and depression, saying something that actually connected with the listener, rather than merely trying to impress. You can hear the first real signals of impending collapse as well: never mind burbling on about astral travel, it’s the title track’s repeated closing mantra "I’m going to die alone in bed" that sets the alarm bells ringing.

There are enough moments of greatness here to suggest that we should’ve seen their resurgence coming, if only we’d bothered to listen. "A New Decade" and "This Is Music" are both swaggering statements of intent. "On Your Own" and "So It Goes" are beautiful exercises in wisdom verging on the Confucian - "You go in on your own and you leave on your own/Forget the lovers you’ve known and the friends on the road". "Drive You Home" is a slowly unfolding number that bobs like a small boat on a gentle tide, a little like Little Feat’s "Somebody’s Leavin’", it always threatens to explode without ever making good the promise. "No Knock On My Door" is a swaggering rock monster with layers of distorted guitar noise rippling from every pore - think The Rolling Stones’ "Sway" suffused with and confused by a rare spirit of optimism. Best bit, and surely The Best Verve Song In The World...Ever! is "History". Released as the final single before their breakup, it sported a cover photograph of a cinema hoarding displaying the phrase "All farewells should be sudden". Despite the fact that the string arrangement is ‘reminiscent’ of John Lennon’s "Mind Games" (they do have a habit of doing that kind of thing, don’t they?) this is pretty much as faultless as the genre of the popular song deserves to get, as Ashcroft rakes over the embers of a defeated relationship before kissing it off with the closing phrase "The bed ain’t made/It’s filled full of hope/I’ve got a skinful of dope"...put it this way, a friend’s CD of "A Northern Soul" has been spinning in our office at work for the last few weeks, and all activity ceases when this song arrives.

If you like "Urban Hymns" I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend "A Northern Soul" to you. It’s not as consistent as the former, but when it’s good it somehow manages to tower over even the likes of "Bitter Sweet Symphony" and "The Drugs Don’t Work". I have no idea how they manage it, but long may they continue to astound.

THE VERVE Urban Hymns (Hut)

Given that 1997 has already furnished us with ample evidence that the Great British Third Album is alive and kicking ("OK Computer", "Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space") as well as conclusive proof that it’s suffering an overblown and prolonged death ("Be Here Now" - by the way, did you know that there’s also a mid-70s George Harrison track called "Be Here Now"? Ain’t that peculiar - the bizarre and inexplicable continued popularity of Ocean Duller Scene), which way will the third release from The Verve tip the balance?

"Urban Hymns" is terrific. Up until the first time I heard "Bitter Sweet Symphony" I, like many people I suspect, had no truck with The Verve’s curious Wigan space rock. But, luckily for us, the band that two years ago broke up with the cover photo of their final single bearing the legend ‘All farewells should be sudden’ have returned with what has to be the most quintessentially British record of 1997, if not of the last thirty years.

The way Oasis play Beatles references, The Verve run with the Stones, except in a far more subtle and playful way. So lifting the riff for "Bitter Sweet Symphony" from an obscure Andrew Oldham Orchestra track might mean that the credits now read ‘written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, lyrics by Richard Ashcroft’, but it made for one of the finest singles of this or any other year. And then there’s "The Drugs Don’t Work", of course....when a song this beautiful and emotional can become a number one without the merest hint of tabloid censure about its title all discussion about the validity of the charts in these 99p CD single days is closed . Time and TV advertising may blight it as nothing more than the first track on the second disc of "The Best Anthems In The World...Ever" (now there’s a trend more deserving of a music fan’s irie), but the kids know where it’s at.

That much you know already. On this double album they’re surrounded by gentle and contemplative but sturdy songs such as "Sonnet", "Catching The Butterfly", "Space And Time" and "Lucky Man", on which Richard Ashcroft is unafraid to show his vulnerability, and lolloping rock-outs like "The Rolling People" and "Come On" (another Stones lift, in title at least, but Mick never sounded as genuinely mad for it as the artist formerly known as Mad Richard does here). Everything is swathed in powerful but understated guitar work and intricate, filigree percussion of the like that you’d more normally expect to hear on, whisper it, an early Genesis album. And though some commentators have whinged that the lyrics aren’t exactly a barrel of laughs for me one line of Ashcroft’s aching honesty beats any number of albums’ worth of Gallagher Sr’s recycle-u-like.

Let’s put "Urban Hymns" into some kind of perspective, fix it into the great global scheme of things. It is the third album from a British quintet, just like "Be Here Now". It has already spawned two hit singles, one reaching number one, the other number two, just like "Be Here Now". It is a staggering musical achievement, that simultaneously sounds totally contemporary yet could have been released at any time during the last thirty years, such is its timelessness. Not quite like "Be Here Now". And what really galls is that, had they actually tried, Oasis could have easily made an album as terrific yet challenging as this and sacrificed not one jot of their radio-friendly unit-shifting ability. Oh well. History is written by the victorious, and "Urban Hymns" has just lifted The Verve’s contribution from a footnote to a chapter’s worth, at least.

Richard Ashcroft