Close your eyes and it could be 1996 all over again. An unpopular government is limping along plagued by scandal after scandal, The Spice Girls are on a sell-out world tour and Morrissey and the NME are at loggerheads over racism again.
The Verve are the latest act to succumb to reunion fever, which is perhaps surprising given the explosive animosity between lead singer Richard Ashcroft and guitarist Nick McCabe. Yet together again they are, currently touring and recording a new album for release sometime next year.
So here we have this reissue of the 2004 compilation, repackaged with a DVD of the band’s videos (so if you want a permanent copy of that video of Ashcroft walking down a street bumping into people, here it is). It’s a curious reissue, as surely most people who wanted these songs would already own them. Yet if we ignore the motives behind the reissue and concentrate on the music itself, there are several treats awaiting.
The tracklisting does appear somewhat cobbled together – a couple of early EP tracks, several tracks from their three albums and a couple of unreleased songs from the Urban Hymns sessions – but nothing can subtract from the sheer majesty of much of the music here.
This was The Verve at their finest – big, intense, grandiose music that could fill both bedrooms and stadia. The opening This Is Music in particular still sounds terrific, with Ashcroft bellowing one of the great opening lines of the ’90s: “I stand accused, just like you, of being born without a silver spoon in my mouth”.
This Is Music was taken from one of the best British albums of the decade, A Northern Soul. It also provides two other highlights on this compilation in the shape of History and On Your Own, two ballads that would mark the start of a change of direction for the band which would see them become briefly acclaimed as one of the most exciting bands of their generation.
History is huge, epic and moving – the strings that were to later provide the bedrock of Bittersweet Symphony frame the song beautifully, and Ashcroft sounds genuinely affecting. On Your Own is quieter but no less effective, with a chorus of “you come in on your own and you leave on your own” tugging at the heartstrings.
It was Urban Hymns that was both the making and the breaking of the band – providing two classic singles in Bittersweet Symphony and The Drugs Don’t Work. Both are included here obviously, together with Lucky Man and Sonnet, but by this time the fire in the band’s belly appeared to have been quenched somewhat.
As good and popular as Urban Hymns was, it did seem to signal a slide towards a more content-sounding, easy-listening version of The Verve (a notion that’s not been displaced by Ashcroft’s rather middling solo albums). It’s highlighted here by the non-chronological running order, shoving the eerie, almost mystical psychedelia of debut single All In The Mind inbetween the smooth sheen of Sonnet and The Drugs Don’t Work.
The two unreleased tracks, This Could Be My Moment and Monte Carlo, are interesting curios but ultimately inessential – the former starts off promisingly with a squeal of guitar, but tails off slightly, while the latter is one of those Verve jams in the mould of Catching The Butterfly or Come On. Nice to have, but they both pale in comparison to what’s gone before.
If you’ve somehow gone through life without ever having heard any music by The Verve, then this is as good a place as any to start. A chronological running order would have made the album more of a coherent listen, but overall it’s a decent reminder why they were so good, and why next year’s album should be one of 2008’s more eagerly awaited listens.