The Verve have just released a remastered version of one of the definitive albums of 1997, Urban Hymns, and they still sound just as majestic. On hearing that beautifully orchestrated introduction on Bitter Sweet Symphony, it melts the years away and takes me back twenty years. I remember on finishing a six-hour bar shift at Reading Festival in August 97 The Verve were due to play and the air was charged. I think either the Manics or the Eels were on the main stage and The Verve were in a smaller marquee which was packed to the rafters’ due to the popularity of Bitter Sweet…. I ended up running back and forth to see both but was blown away by their set as were many.
Where have the years gone? In 1997 the Verve had released two previous albums: A Storm in Heaven (1993) and A Northern Soul (1995) and achieved modest success on these commercially, (the band split shortly after their second album due to internal conflicts). Vocalist Richard Ashcroft then, just as quickly reformed with an old friend, Simon Tong on guitar. Ashcroft soon realised, quite wisely, that guitarist Nick McCabe’s own brand of guitar style was highly needed and asked him to rejoin the band.
Bitter Sweet Symphony was the single released pre-Urban Hymns and captured the moment of the current times (we had just come under a new Labour government with Tony Blair as prime minister, optimism was in the air and Britpop was prevalent). On the album’s release on September 1997, it caught the mood of the time and elevated the Verve from widely revered indie favourites through to inspired rock status. Their music was raw and real and spoke with sincerity. Bitter Sweet got to No. 2 in the UK charts and became the song of the summer. The album went on to produce a further two hits in The Drugs Don’t Work which got to No. 1 and Lucky Man getting to No. 7. Urban Hymns is one of the 20 highest selling albums in the UK ever (now 11 times platinum).
Hearing it again, it still sounds timeless. To celebrate the anniversary the remastering and mixing has been carried out by the original UH co-producer Chris Potter and Metropolis’ Tony Cousins and sounds deluxe and expansive. The production, particularly on Neon Wilderness, shines through, the guitars sounding sharp and lucid. There is a wealth of bonus material and different CD format and vinyl. This includes b-sides plus three hours of live material (previously unreleased). There’s also a DVD with the documentary The Video 96-98, which, previously you could only get on VHS.
The deluxe packages also feature new interviews with all the band and on all physical releases, there’s a wide collection of previously unseen photography by early The Verve photographer, Chris Floyd, who was granted unprecedented access during the making of Urban Hymns and more. The Super-deluxe CD includes a lavish 56-page hard cover book plus poster and 5 postcards. The Vinyl edition comes in a gatefold sleeve and includes a 20-page booklet plus download card which entitles the purchaser to all audio from the super-deluxe CD box.
There’s a huge variety of material to spend time over including BBC Evening Sessions from 1997 which I really enjoyed including the lilting Life’s An Ocean and there are extended versions of songs including Bitter Sweet Symphony which sounds amazing. It’s good to hear the live version of their 1998 hometown concert in Wigan’s Haigh Hall with Ashcroft’s introduction to the said concert with This is Music (35,000) attended. An absorbing collection for any fan is here and it’s good to see there’s a lot of previously unreleased material catching this era-defining band at their peak.