Every once in a while, I’ll come across an album whose first track is so good it takes me days, months, or even years to get past it. My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and its opening track “Only Shallow” is certainly one that falls into the “days” category for me. I wasn’t really keeping track at the time, but I suspect Radiohead’s Kid A can be put in the “months” column. In the case of the Verve’s Britpop stunner Urban Hymns, it took me about five years to listen to the whole album. When I was in high school, I started making a habit of checking CDs out from the library and ripping them onto my computer — Rolling Stone had just released their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and it felt like a whole world had just been opened up for me.
Rolling Stone published the corresponding 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list a year later, and I remember reading the eye-popping quote in the commentary for the Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony” that it was the best song the Rolling Stones had written in twenty years. So I downloaded it via a peer-to-peer file-sharing service to see what was up. To my surprise, I recognized the song immediately — it’s one of those songs you (still) hear everywhere. On one of my many trips to the library, I uncovered the Verve’s Urban Hymns in the stacks of CDs, and there was “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” first on the album. I had no idea if the album was supposed to be any good or not; this is before I made a point of reading the AllMusic review of every album that has ever existed. (Indeed, it wasn’t until years later that I discovered that Urban Hymns is a five-star album on the site.)
I basically checked Urban Hymns out from the library and ripped it onto my computer that day just so I could have a CD-rip version of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” instead of a tainted mp3 from God knows where — actually having the album wasn’t of particular value to me at the time. And from that point on — from the rest of high school all the way through college — I’m pretty sure I never listened to Urban Hymns in full once. It sat there, copied across six hard drives — a PC desktop, a PC laptop, a Macbook, plus two iPods and an iPhone — before it ever got played towards the end of 2011. (FYI: I have since acquired another Macbook and another iPhone. And yes, it depresses me how quickly I have gone through those.) I was writing the entry for Oasis’ Definitely Maybe for my favorite albums list, and in rounding up the honorable mentions, I realized I should listen to Urban Hymns, since Definitely Maybe was the only Britpop album on my list.
I was very impressed by Urban Hymns, to say the least — enough to list it as an honorable mention despite only having listened to it once. (Hey, at least I had listened to “Bitter Sweet Symphony” countless times.) After that initial listen, I didn’t get to listen to it again until after I had finished the list — there simply wasn’t time to listen to anything other than what was necessary to keep moving forward with the list. When I was doing the list, I burned every album on the list onto a CD and kept them in CD wallets in my car, so every day I’d listen to the album that was “next up” during my commute and would come home with some thoughts. Well, I put some other CDs in my car, too, and one of them was Urban Hymns. I have no memory of burning it — I suspect it was after listening to it for the Definitely Maybe post, but I’m really not sure. I remember putting it on one night while I was driving and being absolutely floored by track two, “Sonnet.”
It was so good that I kept hitting the back button, listening to it over and over, just as I had done for years with track one, “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” (Kind of made me wish I hadn’t waited like six years really listen to it.) When I got home, I listened to the whole album, but while I enjoyed it immensely, there was something about it that was deeply unusual for a modern rock album: it was sharply contoured, making it difficult to “map out,” so to speak. This is an album I could have written about long ago, but I wanted to wait until I felt like I had fully absorbed it and could listen to it from front to back without wanting to linger on a particular song — there are so many outstanding tracks that this took quite a while. As a white male American (Pearl Jam reference) who grew up during the ’90s and ’00s, I have continuously devoured all things grunge since I was an adolescent — mostly by osmosis.
Britpop, I’m sad to say, was something I was wholly unfamiliar with until I was in college. Many of the movement’s key acts — Suede, Pulp, even the Stone Roses if you want to reach really far back to its origins — never made much of an impact Stateside, and indeed, even Oasis’ American popularity was relatively minor compared to the overwhelming success they found overseas as a mid-’90s international pop culture phenomenon; all of Oasis’ albums sold in greater numbers in their home country than in America, despite England having a smaller population by a factor of six. As I said at the top, though, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” is actually one of the few Britpop tunes I recognized from my youth. (Oasis’ “Wonderwall” is about the only other.)
The grunge movement came to an abrupt end with the suicide of Kurt Cobain in April 1994, and Britpop’s longevity was similarly strained — in the case of both movements, the immense, worldwide scrutiny simply became too much for its participants. Both grunge and Britpop had incredibly popular bands in Nirvana and Oasis, respectively, who served as the focal point of each movement and eventually imploded in very public ways. Interestingly, though, each movement had a band that was more technically skilled and possessed superior craftsmanship to its peers, but had yet to truly make a splash throughout the most of the phenomenon. With grunge, this band was Soundgarden, who, incidentally, was widely expected by industry prognosticators to be the grunge band that experienced the most mainstream success when they signed with a major label in 1989.
Even after Nirvana broke through in late 1991, Soundgarden’s excellent album Badmotorfinger still couldn’t find a very big audience — it didn’t go platinum until early ’93, and this is when anything grunge-related was flying off the shelves — and the band responded with Superunknown, their magnum opus, in March 1994, just a month before Cobain’s suicide. Urban Hymns is the Britpop equivalent of Superunknown. The Verve is a band that, like Soundgarden, didn’t achieve much popularity throughout the majority of the phenomenon it was instrumental in creating, as the Verve had been releasing music since the 1992 Verve EP. And in terms of positioning, Urban Hymns, like Superunknown, arrived right at the end of its phenomenon, and represents Britpop’s creative peak, even if the “Summer of Britpop” — when Oasis’ “Roll with It” and Blur’s “Country House” were both released the same week in August 1995 in a highly publicized chart battle — was a full two years earlier.
After the public yawned at the bloated, over-indulgent Be Here Now upon its release at the end of August 1997, nothing was the same. The damage had been done, and even though Urban Hymns was a huge hit when it was released a month later, the Verve wouldn’t release another album until 2008, Oasis returned as a different band in 2000, and Blur had already retooled their sound with their self-titled 1997 LP. (In fact, Blur’s lead singer Damon Albarn eventually left to form Gorillaz.) In other words, the dream was over. The air was quickly let out of the balloon, and pop culture simply moved on to the next thing, just as it had when grunge had faded a few years previously — it’s the way of things, it would seem.
Nearly lost in the shuffle was Urban Hymns — “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was released as a single the preceding June and was a worldwide smash, so it followed that Urban Hymns would sell well since this was an era when the only way to listen to music of your own choosing was to buy it. Still, since the song (and not the album) was released pre-Be Here Now, Urban Hymns has sort of disappeared into the mists of time, which is too bad. As we have frequently seen throughout history, when an empire crumbles, a new power quickly fills its place, and the second half of the ’90s saw teen pop sweep the world in a way that was absolutely scary. The song that finally broke through my difficult-to-reach exterior was Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time”; I was eleven then, and though Britney wasn’t for me, it was that song that hooked me into checking out what else I could identify with.
(Before you ask, yes, I remember the “Macarena” — the accompanying dance remained popular for another few years as I recall — but I was by no means a music listener back when I was eight.)
The real explosion, however, began with the Spice Girls’ debut album Spice and debut single “Wannabe”; both were released in the latter half of 1996. Even if Be Here Now hadn’t been a colossal disappointment, it’s hard to imagine anything would have slowed the Spice Girls train down; Spice sold over 28 million copies worldwide and “Wannabe” topped the charts in 31 countries and sold over 6 million copies. Furthermore, the Spice Girls arrived with an air of inevitability — like it or not, they’re what the masses wanted. Oasis had been such tabloid fodder that by the time they had been chewed up and spit out, it was no longer about the music. That’s why the next musical group that achieved superstar status wasn’t a band — what people craved were new musical celebrities, and for better or (mostly) worse, the Spice Girls fulfilled this opening and then some.
Each Spice Girl was a different “spice” — Scary, Sporty, Baby, Ginger, and Posh — and this was played up big time in the media. (Ironically, Ginger — the only member named after an actual spice, left the group in 1998.) Nowadays, forming a pop group of non-musicians — heck, of essentially non-singers — where marketing takes precedence is very commonplace, but I can remember girls at my elementary school thought the Spice Girls were a pretty big deal. I wish I could say I listened to Britpop instead, but like I said before, I didn’t discover Britpop until I was in college — the truth is, I simply wasn’t listening to music at all. Now that all the noise has been removed from the moment and we can look back on 1997 with 20/20 vision, it’s clear that Urban Hymns was a swan song, a fitting end to a moment in pop culture that, like all movements that enter the public consciousness from an organic source, was inherently fragile and lacked the infrastructure to be more than a short-lived phenomenon.
When something becomes a worldwide phenomenon, it’s human nature to want as much of it as possible, but it’s also the nature of the entertainment industry to try to cash in on a success as much it can, which is usually a recipe for disaster — it’s why phenomenons never last. It really is too bad for the Verve, though — Urban Hymns was when everything came together. More than any other Britpop album I have heard, it perfectly characterizes the soaring nature of the genre, thanks to expertly rendered strings that lift many songs off the ground in a really magical way. Nearly every track is an utter knockout, and the band even retains a healthy dose of the psychedelia that permeated its previous records, as well. It’s easily the most sprawling and ambitious album of the Britpop era, and even though it doesn’t seem to receive proper credit nowadays since it was released so late, Urban Hymns is the sound of every ambition of the movement fully realized.