10 Best Verve Songs
They were supposed to be one of the biggest rock bands in the world -- and maybe, for a brief moment, they were. But the Verve never quite became the historic watershed act that they were expected to be, in part because of their uncompromising approach towards music and devotion to following their muse, wherever it took them. (All the inner-band fighting didn't help, either). Formed in 1989 in a town outside of Manchester, England, the Verve -- singer Richard Ashcroft, guitarist Nick McCabe, bass guitarist Simon Jones and drummer Peter Salisbury (with keyboardist-guitarist Simon Tong near the end) -- put out two critically acclaimed albums and a handful of EPs and compilations before striking platinum with their 1997 album 'Urban Hymns' and its crossover smash single, 'Bitter Sweet Symphony.' The band split up in the whirlwind of success that followed, only to reunite for a tour in 2007 and one more album, 'Forth,' which dropped in 2008. The Verve have been inactive since, with no official breakup announcement but no plans for the future. McCabe summed things up on his Facebook page, saying that "the Verve seems to be on holiday." While we await their return, we look back at the Verve's 10 Best Songs.
The Verve were just four young blokes from a small town outside Manchester, England -- and still just called Verve, as they had yet to be confronted with legal action from jazz label Verve Records over their name -- when they released their 1992 debut single, ‘All in the Mind.' It's four minutes of the blissed-out, shoegaze-tinged neo-psychedelic rock that would become the band’s trademark sound for much of its career.
This gorgeously somber acoustic cut off the band’s sophomore album, ‘A Northern Soul,’ was their first venture into straight-up balladry. Trading in the wandering psych vibe of their earlier work for more conventional song structure and distortion pedals for acoustic guitars, the Verve showed more of a human side with breezy folk melodies and lyrics from Ashcroft that betrayed his fragile emotional edge at the time. It was a sharp contrast to the "You can do anything you want/ All you've got to do is try" mantra of their first album.
Another ballad, for sure, but by ‘Urban Hymns,’ the Verve had not only refined the craft of writing ballads, they had made them a major part of their repertoire. Released as the fourth single off their breakthrough album, the track peaked at a relatively weak No. 74 on the British charts, but only because it was issued as a 12-inch vinyl single and therefore wasn’t officially recognized. (It was an import-only version that made the tally.) ‘Sonnet’ showcases the strength of Ashcroft's baritone over Salisbury’s steady beats and McCabe’s slippery, reverb-drenched fretwork.
Like most of ‘A Storm in Heaven,’ 'The Sun, The Sea' sounds like the musical equivalent of a narcotic haze. Both guitars and vocals were recorded with thick layers of echo and delay, and the meandering song structure has more in common with freeform jazz or old-school Pink Floyd than with most Britpop acts big at the time. But unlike most of ‘A Storm in Heaven,’ this cut features the trumpet and saxophone stylings of the Kick Horns, a British jazz quartet that adds an additional layer of atmosphere and helps drive the song towards polychromatic sonic catharsis.
“Imagine the future, woke up with a scream/ I was buying some feelings from a vending machine,” Richard Ashcroft sings on ‘Life’s an Ocean,’ turning out the kind of vague, dream-like lyrics that inundate much of ‘A Northern Soul.’ The album is notable for Ashcroft’s tendency to repeat lyrical motifs (and sometimes even straight-up repeat the same lines), and while this has been a source of criticism, fans of the band find the repetition more an effective strategy for emphasis than any evidence of writer’s block.
The second single off ‘Urban Hymns’ is also, amazingly enough, the only Verve song to top the charts in their homeland of Britain. (The cut that tops our 10 Best list – and that is hands down the band’s best-known song – somehow only made it to No. 2.) Once again the Verve go the ballad route, but never before have they sounded so musically conventional. Lyrically, however, Ashcroft proves he’s still one to push boundaries: “Now the drugs don’t work/ They just make you worse,” he sings in the chorus. True, it’s not the most brilliant poetry ever penned (nor is it, obviously, the first rock song so overtly about drugs by a long shot), but the blunt approach to the dark side of substance abuse, especially from a band so often associated with drugs, is refreshing.
Any song from the ‘Verve’ EP could’ve filled this slot, but ‘Gravity Grave’ was definitely a fan favorite, with extended versions of the tune serving as the epic closing number to countless Verve concerts. (An especially triumphant live take recorded as the encore to their memorable set at the Glastonbury festival in ’93 turned up on the ‘No Come Down’ B-sides and outtakes compilation.) Like all the best early Verve tracks, ‘Grave’ shows the power of the band in its formative stages, already having developed a sound with appreciative nods to others -- from the Doors and Can through to My Bloody Valentine and Spiritualized -- but uniquely and instantly recognizable only as its own.
This aptly-titled tune comes off as an ode to Ashcroft’s religion of choice: music. “If love is a drug then it ain’t for me/ Music is my life/ The love I need,” he sings over a lock-groove of soaring guitar bends and thick fuzz bass, proving that the Verve could be a tight rock band when it wanted to be. ‘A Northern Soul’ studio sessions were said to be fueled by inner-band turmoil and mounds of drugs, and many of the album’s tunes were composed by picking through hours of recorded jamming and reassembling the material as complete compositions. That approach gives the disc its feeling of an organic whole, yet singles like ‘Music’ still stand on their own.
Opening their (inter)stellar debut album ‘A Storm in Heaven’ with a mind-floating bass line, swirling guitars, airy vocals and hallucinatory beats, ‘Slide Away’ is as close the Verve ever got to perfecting the formula of their early days. The song rocketed to No. 1 on the British indie charts, leading to an invitation to join the second stage of Lollapalooza in 1994. With this came America’s first introduction to the band.
Really, could we pick any other track for No. 1? In less than a decade, the Verve went from scruffy shoegazers playing small clubs to bona fide international rock stars, and this is the song that made it happen. An epic track pairing lush orchestration with powerful lyrics and a strong melodic hook, ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ is an anthem to end all anthems, a timeless tune that’s rooted in the blues tradition but towers over most modern rock classics. The Verve never saw a dime from the single version of ‘Symphony’ -- the sample of an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones song ‘The Last Time’ that serves as the song’s foundation led to a high-profile lawsuit that the Verve couldn’t win -- but it’s nonetheless their magnum opus, with an unforgettable video to match. "Would any other rock band in the world make a track like this?" Ashcroft once asked of ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony.’ “We want to stand head and shoulders with the giants.” And for one track, at least, they certainly did.