Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Village Voice, 18 November 1997

by Simon Reynolds

Damn and blast the Verve. I'd sworn never to fall again for that classic-rock godstar-savior-shaman shtick, that it was gonna be dance music's desiring-machines and anonymous collectives forever and ever, amen. But here comes the MTV buzz-video/U.K. Number One, ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, and I can feel that old-time redemption rock rainin' down on me.

Strangely, other dance fanatics dig the Verve too; in songs like their second U.K. Number One, ‘The Drugs Don't Work’, the group resonates with a generation that knows the rave dream is a lie but keeps on taking the bad medicine. All year long, the dance mags have been running articles with titles like ‘Are Drugs Driving You Mad?’ that ponder the psychic fallout from ten years of dance-drug culture. Recent musical manifestations range from the mind wreckage of Tricky's three albums to the Chemical Brothers' ‘Setting Sun’, with its Noel Gallagher lyrics — "The visions we had have faded away... You said your body was young but your mind was very old." Like the Verve, Oasis are trad-rockers strangely popular among ravers, partly because of their just-say-yes lifestyle and partly because of the ravelike mass euphoria of their megaconcerts. And it's Oasis's endorsement of their old tourmates the Verve that has helped propel singer Richard Ashcroft & Co. to their current U.K. heights.

Strangely, though, the Verve were being touted as future superstars years before the Gallagher bros. showed their surly visages, hyped in 1992 alongside Suede as the glamorous antidote to self-effacing shoegazing bands. Actually, the Verve sounded decidedly dream-poppy — guitarist Nick McCabe eschewed riffs in favor of sustain-heavy trails of tone color. But what their fab early singles — ‘One Way To Go’, ‘Feel’, the Icarus-complex anthem ‘Gravity Grave’ — really reminded me of was Simple Minds. Not an alluring reference for Americans, I know, but I'm talking about the pre-U.S. breakthrough Simple Minds of 1982's New Gold Dream. Ashcroft's wide-screen imagery — all "new horizons" and "fiery skies" — had the same reaching-out-for-lofty-intangibles aura as Jim Kerr on ‘Promised You A Miracle’ and ‘Glittering Prize’, and both singers came over like a chaste and bluesless Jim Morrison. Another reference point was Mike Scott of The Waterboys — whose wonderstruck ‘The Whole of the Moon’ became an anthem on the acid house scene, believe it or not.

Like Simple Minds and the Waterboys, the Verve's music has the epic contours of classic rock but none of the r&b ‘substance’; McCabe's guitar functions more like a surrogate string section or synth. So it's not such a leap from previous Verve terrain to the sample-based sweep of ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, which, despite its minuscule lift from an orchestral version of ‘The Last Time’ and outrageous Allen Klein-imposed credit "written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards", sounds closer to Scott Walker than the Stones. That said, when the Verve played Irving Plaza last Wednesday, it was all a tad too trad for my liking — a reversion to the anthemic-not-ambient bluster of 1995's sophomore LP, A Northern Soul. Too often, as the band wielded the kind of girth it takes to fill arenas, you could hear the specter of the later Simple Minds.

The Verve strenuously strove for the sort of blazing heights achieved effortlessly the night before at the Plaza by the far from overtly transcendentalist Stereolab. They reached those heights, sure — the gig's peak, the upward spiraling, "never coming down no more no more no more" coda of ‘Drugs Don't Work’, was breathtaking. But halfway through the set, I began to experience the same sensation of grandeur fatigue provoked by a recent visit to the Grand Canyon. In your living room, the Verve's religiosity is somehow much more palatable: the high points of the new album Urban Hymns, twinkle with a panoramic poignancy that suggests the Stones' ‘Moonlight Mile’ produced by Eno circa The Unforgettable Fire.

Back in Britain, where the Verve have become stars as much for their storytelling as their soundpainting of "emotional landscapes" (copyright: Bjork), Ashcroft is being garlanded as a populist poet in the Lennon mold, an Everyman-ish boy who's Really Sayin' Something. Don't know about that, but while the words aren't especially profound or even well phrased, they have a rough-hewn ring of autobiographical truth that compares favorablv with the audience-insulting doggerel cobbled together by Noel Gallagher. The Verve are Oasis with ‘content’, in fact. Ashcroft oozes that cocky North of England-bred self-belief that is Oasis's sole sales shtick, but he also gives the impression that he believes, or desperately wants to believe, in something bigger than his skinny self. He's a bit of a seeker, our Richard, and in the Age of Irony, such earnest ardor is refreshing. I just hope the Verve's quest doesn't culminate in another ‘Don't You Forget About Me’.

THE VERVE, interview
The Observer, 26 July 1992

"When you live in a place like Wigan, your senses aren't exactly bombarded with stimuli," says Richard Ashcroft, lead singer of Verve. "So when you make music, you don't want to reflect your environment, you want to create something bigger than what you see around you. If it's a rainy day and you’re stuck in a cramped rehearsal room with no windows, you want to rise above the dreariness. That's what we want our music to do – transport the audience beyond the everyday."

In the alternative rock scene, realism is back in fashion. Bands such as The Levellers and Carter USM have built up huge followings with their rabble-rousing anthems about social immiseration and mundane tribulations. But Verve go against the grain. Unabashed escapists, they believe that music should be about transcendence and ascension; that it should propel the listener out-of-this-world.

"I've had enough of Billy Bragg and that brand of social realist pop," says Ashcroft. "I’ve got enough shit going on in my life, I don't want to be reminded of how dismal everything is. I want to be elevated, not dragged down."

The Verve songbook is crammed with synonyms for 'high' and 'fly'. And their next single, due in September but as yet untitled, is all about Icarus, the boy who tried to fly to the sun. "I think about that guy a lot," grins Ashcroft. "I know he plummeted to his death, but at least he tried. He had the spirit and the willpower."

Verve are not totally alone in their Icarus-like quest for glory. They are often mentioned in the same breath as Spiritualised and Levitation. All three groups brilliantly combine radiant neo-psychedelia with visionary lyrics teeming with lofty abstractions and spiritual intangibles. "There is a mystical vibe to our music," admits Ashcroft, "but not in the sense that I'm stating my beliefs, more of me wanting to know the answers. I'm trying to find out what's going on, but I haven't got any deep philosophy. I'm just grasping for something. It's more about curiosity and a sense of wonder."

With their hunger for experience, their longing to "kiss the sky" and "set the controls for the heart of the sun", Verve very much partake of the spirit of the late Sixties. Musically, the lustrous tumult generated by guitarist Nick McCabe, bassist Simon Jones and drummer Peter Salisbury sometimes recalls Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. And Ashcroft's dazed, awestruck stage presence has been compared with the original rock shaman himself, Jim Morrison. His charisma sets Verve apart from the hordes of 'ordinary bloke' bands doing the rounds. Ashcroft has no truck with the punk-derived idea that ‘anyone can do it’.

"I don't want to pay five quid to see a bunch of kids bouncing about on stage looking just the same as the kids in the audience. You want to see someone with presence, you want to be blown away. You want to witness something bigger than you could ever hope to create."

Verve also reject the old punk tenet that less is more. Their songs are unashamedly epic. On their latest EP, the nine-minute 'She's A Superstar' and 11-minute 'Feel' undulate and escalate, attaining a majesty far beyond the bounds of the three-minute single.

"If we play something that moves us, we like to dwell on it, to sustain that feeling. Our songs are bigger in every way. So many groups are totally constrained by the three-minute format. The attraction of our band is the abandon. People feed off a band when they know you have no boundaries. They want to see how far you'll go. And we're going all the way."


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