It’s boy pop (you don’t remember any girls in the Beatles, do you?), it’s wan, it’s self-absorbed, and it’s so British that whenever the stuff travels it seems like a freak of nature. Really, what are Oasis doing here? The Beatles were expansive, they wanted the world; in moments they were the world, or so it seemed during the worldwide telecast of them recording “All You Need Is Love.” Shtick it may have been, scripted and blocked out note for note and foot for foot (John, stand over here), but it was convincing, too. When the performance ended, the new song weirdly, warmly separated into elements few might have imagined it was made from: “Greensleeves” sawed on a violin, “She Loves You” hollered by Lennon as if he were on his way out the door, the whole museum of Western music tipped over on its side and everything in it tumbling into the street like jewels dropped by a thief, or garbage spilling out of a trash can.
Which brings us to the Verve, the latest neo-Beatles band to be celebrated by the notably male-dominated British pop press, and a band that has stormed the U.K. charts with its third album, Urban Hymns (Virgin), which is now breaking in the U.S. with the single “Bitter Sweet Symphony”—a whiny lament about, you know, life. Life. LIFE. That’s what a “bitter sweet symphony” is: life. Nothing less. And come to think of it, this is where the Beatles went after they broke up, right down this road of pretentious drivel—at least George Harrison, Lennon in his worst moments, not Paul, not Ringo.
What makes the Verve so interesting, though, is that Paul and Ringo are as present in the group’s ambience as George and John, even if they’re all facets of songwriter, singer, and rhythm guitarist Richard Ashcroft. His sad voice winds down the narrow alleys his tunes open, apparently recognizing no face other than his own, self-pity rising as the truest form of narcissism, and song by song, the voice seems ever more bland. But it also takes on a queerly realistic, convincing, believable cast—this guy may be ordinary as dirt, but he doesn’t think he is, and he’s going to get you to listen to him no matter how long it takes.
Now, long ago, in 1970, the year the Beatles broke up, the Scottish quintet Marmalade had a Top Ten hit with “Reflections of My Life,” as fey and ridiculous a piece of Britpop as has ever been released. The shamelessness of the thing was—still is—staggering. Strings; a sweet, plinking guitar; high, seeking voices; and a song about—what else?—the meaning of life. Even the title of the thing was like a dare: I’m a wimp, knock me down. “The world is, a bad place,” sang Dean Ford, all but choking over the pauses in the lines, over their significance. “A terrible place, to live/But I don’t want to die…”
It’s unforgettable, and I’ve never heard it come on the radio without immediately turning it up. The record is stirring, heartrending, a mirror letting you look straight on at everything gooey and sentimental and sincere—honest—about yourself. It’s the Beatles’ “In My Life” or “If I Fell” but as done by anyone, without brilliance, without genius—and it’s here that the Verve do their best work. “Bitter Sweet Symphony” fades out, its orchestral pomp lost to its own reverie, and then “Reflections of My Life” begins—or rather, just enough of its melody is there, opening the door to “Sonnet,” a little song so quiet, so seductive, it could take away a whole day, dissolving important conversations into daydreams. The song seems to clear your head, seems to make things stand out with more definition, seems to reveal the true insignificance of most of what anyone might be doing at any given moment. In other words, play it once, you might find yourself playing it all day.
All around the songs on Urban Hymns, at the edges, there are little instrumental touches you barely register if you consciously register them at all: squeaks and bubbles of sound eddying up to the main themes, secrets trying to tell themselves. This is the psychedelic side of the music, just a hint of the old ethos that reality is not obvious. There’s a long, trough of dull tunes on Urban Hymns that seem all but designed to lampoon this idea—if it seems dull, it must be profound?—but the notion that much is hidden, that casual listening will take you only so far, pays off as the record ends. “Neon Wilderness” is the second-to-last number; it’d be hard to think up a more perfect psychedelic cliché of a title, but the song soars. It gets lost, it gets gone, you can’t track it. The joy that breaks out of its tangle of wishing and hoping, of anticipated disappointment and humiliation, is, maybe, what Britpop can offer that other kinds of music can only imitate or ignore.
Certainly, it’s a sort of release that over the past years Joy Division, New Order, the Pet Shop Boys, or Polly Jean Harvey have had no use for. Any comparison of the Verve to performers with the passion and slyness of Harvey or Neil Tennant would be absurd. They’ve been and gone from places Richard Ashcroft will never get to, and that may be his luck. As a pop artist, he can stick around in places artists on another level might not even notice.
Interview, December 1997