Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Bitter Sweet Symphony

Band: The Verve
Album: Urban Hymns
Year: 1997
Label: Hut
Status: Disbanded 2009
The album’s opening track makes you want to be in love, as it combines hair-prickling beauty, believability and honesty. When you get down to it the whole album is about the pain and pleasure of love. It’s a fragile thing and may not last long. Maybe that’s why The Verve use butterfly imagery: this album has the trippily haunting song Catching That Butterfly, about a dream of finding love; their first album had a distorted love song called Butterfly.

Wait ... pain and fragility? In a love song? Bitter Sweet Symphony is not a happy song. It’s about a depressing and dark night of the soul. Can you change or not? Break the mould or not? There’s irony when people use it as their “romantic” song, or a wedding song: they’ve never listened to the words, just the absorbed the surface, the rising and falling orchestral chords, heartbeat rhythm, and a vague understanding that it somehow relates to love and emotion. You’ve always got to look beyond the surface to understand something. Bitter and sweet. Life is not all good or bad, you have to navigate as best you can, even when things are difficult.
As shown by what happened to this song from their third album. It was a UK gold hit, yet due to the craziness of the legal system The Verve get no royalties and the song is credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards because of a few legally negotiated notes taken from someone else’s song inspired by a Jagger/Richards track. The law is frequently at odds with both common sense and justice.


As was Richard Ashcroft’s captivating performance in the song’s video, which got the band massive exposure in the 90’s (appropriate, since it was based on Massive Attack’s 1991 Unfinished Sympathy video). Richard Ashcroft walks down a road, he will not move or change course or acknowledge anyone else. He moves through danger, oblivious because he’s really in his own mind. The song, like the official video, has an endless summer feel which touches a chord, resonates, and makes it eternally popular. Maybe it’s partly the lighting, the way the sunshine washes streets (and pained souls) clean. The lighting is even more apparent in their Lucky Man video. Sunshine everywhere makes life a dream, and the brighter the shafts, the darker the shadow. It’s how you perceive the world.

The Urban Hymns album was their biggest success however you measure it: sales (platinum in many countries), critical acceptance, public adoption, chart position. It won Best British Album at the 1998 Brit Awards. It was a long journey to get there, but The Verve worked hard and always held on to hope.




Extract from page 323 of 2000 Tunes: A History of Manchester Music by M. H. Rees; used with permission. Read the whole series (25 extracts) here; or my summary post. Readers might be interested in my forthcoming novel about a man obsessed with Manchester music - confusingly, it is also called 2000 Tunes!
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