The Verve was without question one of the best British rock groups of the 1990s. But they broke up in 1999 after ten years together and after the most successful period of its career. Singer Richard Ashcroft then launched a mildly successful solo career in the early 2000s.
Now, nearly ten years later, the band is back together and has made Forth (On Your Own Records), a comeback album that, though imperfect, sounds like it was made in the ’90s, recently discovered and only now ready for release. And that’s a good thing, especially for fans hoping to hear the group recapture the brilliant, spellbinding shoegazer rock and psychedelic terrain that made them a British and later worldwide sensation.
For fans looking for strings attached to grandiose orchestral pop rockers like Urban Hymns megahit “Bittersweet Symphony,” there are plenty of strings coating the band’s new and fourth record, but nothing as instantly memorable or hit-worthy as its biggest hit. So what we have here is a record geared more toward recapturing the spirit of early Verve records like A Storm In Heaven and A Northern Soul with a hint of Urban Hymns here and there.
The spacious post-rock, ProTools-aided rave-up “Love Is Noise” is not only The Verve’s lead single off the new record, but a driving anthem that features some of the most passionate vocal performances Richard Ashcroft has recorded in years. “Judas” is another winner, with its blissful, dream-like melodies, as is the urgent vocals and tremolo-propelled guitars of album opener “Sit And Wonder.”
Straight-up rocker “Noise Epic” is the hardest-hitting track (for them) on the album and starts out promising, then sees Ashcroft meandering a bit with hushed vocals before the group suddenly turns the tide and busts the tune wide open into a Stooges-like jam. Guitarist Nick McCabe must really look forward to cranking this one up live. In fact, The Verve made a conscious effort to give tracks like this a live feel and thus recorded the song as a band live in studio.
“Numbness,” which treads pure psychedelic, Dark Side Of The Moon-era Pink Floyd territory is a pleasant listen for a few minutes, but Ashcroft’s sleepy, repetitive vocals get tired after awhile and the tune never takes off structurally, just content to get lost in its own jam. The strings and piano-led dirge-like “I See Houses” seems to deal with the inner struggle of troops in war, but sounds too dreary to be memorable. It certainly gives you the opposite feeling of uplifting Urban Hymns numbers like “Sonnet” and “Lucky Man.”
The seven-minute-plus enjoyable, dreamy album closer “Appalachian Springs” should have younger listeners realizing where Verve offspring like Silversun Pickups got some of its influence from. McCabe’s swirly layers of guitars and effects, matched with Ashcroft’s soft-to-loud vocal style add depth to a song that is classic Verve all the way through.
What’s frustrating about this record is that like so many top-level rock bands over the years — think Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Oasis — The Verve left some good b-sides off the original CD pressing of Forth that could’ve made it a stronger album and instead stuck them on other releases, including vinyl and digital versions. For instance, “Mover” is the best song that didn’t make Forth but is worth checking out, as is the bass-heavy “Chic Dub.”
Still, in an age where great bands of yesteryear get back together to simply tour (for example, Fleetwood Mac) and cash in, The Verve got back together after nearly a decade apart. They played some much talked about summer shows and made a very respectable comeback record, one that doesn’t rewrite its hits or go off in an entirely new musical direction. If you’re a fan from the “Bittersweet Symphony” days, you may be a bit disappointed with Forth. But for those who are familiar with all their records, there’s enough ‘90s nostalgia to win you back as fans.
The Verve as a unit is tight and sound as inspired now as they did in their heyday. It’s just that Forth isn’t as focused a record as a whole as it could have been. But as long as Ashcroft, McCabe and the rest of the band stay together, The Verve’s best album may be ahead of them. Forth may be a few tracks short of greatness, but it’s still better than most bands’ first albums.