E-motional Landscapes

Village Voice & November 1997

Damn and blast the Verve. I'd sworn never to fall again for that classic-rock godstar-saviour-shaman shtick. That it was was gonna be dance music's desiring-machines and anonymous collectives forever and ever, amen. But here comes the MTV buzz-video/UK no. 1 "Bittersweet Symphony" and I can feel that old-time redemption rock raining down on me. Strangely, other dance fanatics dig the Verve, too. In songs like their second UK No 1, "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 10 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 Gallaghers 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' endorsement of their old tourmates the Verve that has helped people singer Richard Ashcroft &co. to their current UK heights.

Strangely, thought, the verve were being touted as future superstars years before the Gallager 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-US breakthrough Simple Minds of 1982's New Gold Dream. Ashcroft's widescreen 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 was Mike Scott of The Waterboys_whose wonderstruck "the Whole of the Moon" became an anthem on 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 miniscule 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 anthem -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" 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, and 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 favorably with the audience-insulting doggerel cobbled together by Noel Gallager. 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 that 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."

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