Men out of time, The Verve were a neo-psychedelic jam-rock outfit who got fortuitously swept up in the Britpop boom and stumbled upon a timely form of Big Music.
‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ was a one-hit wonder, but it was still a wonder, a beautiful fluke and distilled realisation of Richard Ashcroft’s most head-bursting Blakean visions fused to a string-figure filched from the orchestral version of the Stones’ ‘The Last Time’. For those three minutes, anything was possible.
But notwithstanding the majestic ‘Lucky Man’, Urban Hymns was a patchy effort padded out with Kula Shaker cobblers like ‘The Rolling People’. The band’s Slane swansong was conceived as an epochal moment, but the spectator was left with the hollow feeling that this was a mid-level band who’d just lost a key member playing an amphitheatre way out of their league, Ashcroft drowning as much as waving in his attempts to raise the crowd spirit to a level the material just couldn’t support.
Now, 10 years after, The Verve have reformed, and the song remains much the same. On Forth’s opening track ‘Sit And Wonder’, Ashcroft sings with real bite, the rhythm section throw nimble baggy moves and guitarist Nick McCabe’s playing possesses a sort of taciturn sonic charisma, spewing inspired curlicues and snaking slabs of sound over the tumultuous surge of the track. By contrast, the single ‘Love Is Noise’ is an unabashed anthem built around a catchy loop and disco beat, the kind of tune The Killers might pawn their eyeliner to pen.
But much of Forth finds The Verve playing to their weaknesses. ‘Rather Be’ and ‘Judas’ are evocative pieces based around stately chord sequences, but they cry out for the solid furniture of song structure, substantial choruses and middle-eights. ‘Numbness’ sounds like Dave Gilmour trapped in a room with Crazy Horse, a bewitchingly malarial atmosphere for sure, but after the first few minutes the effect is of four musicians walking circles in a forest of sound. Likewise, ‘Noise Epic’ is a formless improv wherein the players strive to achieve rapture of the deep but end up sounding like a bunch of transition year kids pretending to be Sonic Youth.
For all of that, Forth has its moments. ‘I See Houses’ is an almost minimalist piano piece rotating around a rigid rhythm figure and – at last! – a decent modulation from verse to chorus. And ‘Valium Skies’ is the kind of skyscraping ballad they do best, a wide-eyed Roses-y veneration of the ever-idealised ‘she’.
The Verve have a lot going for them: a fine frontman, a gifted guitarist and a rhythm section that barely put a foot wrong. But the foursome need to sit in a kitchen and work out some decent changes and melodies instead of letting the sound and fury of the band-room fool them into thinking they’ve got a song and not the germ of one.
File under unfinished symphonies.
Key Track: ‘Sit And Wonder’