3 out of 5 stars
If you grew up in the ’90s, you’ve probably heard “Bittersweet Symphony.” And yet, if you ask your average millennial about the band behind the song, you’ll probably get a lot of puzzled looks. “Some English band,” you might hear. “That track was big a long time ago.”
That’s about where the knowledge of The Verve ends. The band came out of nowhere in 1997, hit it big with one of the decade’s great rock singles and then, like many before them, were never heard from again.
In reality, things are a little more complicated. The Verve have been around since 1992, when a fully formed EP brought them the attention of the music press and a key role in the then-nascent Britpop movement. Over the last 15 years, they’ve been through two break-ups, released three critically-acclaimed albums and had a worldwide hit. After lead singer Richard Ashcroft’s solo career fell flat, The Verve reunited once again in 2007. Now, without much hoopla, the band has finally released its comeback album, Forth.
So let’s begin with the obvious: This record is not going to convert the uninitiated. Sticking to their tried and true method on past albums of writing long tracks, The Verve don’t disappoint — the shortest track lasts over four minutes, and most of them go well past six.
This time, Ashcroft and company unabashedly fall back to their fuzzed-out space-rock roots with the final product ultimately geared toward an already well-established audience. True, many of the pop sensibilities of “Urban Hymns” still emerge from the layers of guitar, but when they do, it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, the “ooh-ahs” and “nah-nah-nahs” combine with the swirling harmonies to create something pretty. On the other, the album’s niceties hardly rock. If you want to drown in reverb, you’ll like it; if you want something you can grab onto, you’re out of luck. The edge and drive of their early singles is largely and conspicuously absent.
The more structured songs are therefore the highlights, with most of them found together near the beginning of the tracklist. “Sit and Wonder,” for instance, sounds uncannily like The Bends-era Radiohead with teeth. Lead single “Love is Noise” is built around a pulsating dance-rock rhythm, and it’s a shame the band didn’t explore this direction further. On the beautifully layered “I See Houses,” a haunting piano loop provides the song with direction as it sails under Ashcroft’s serpentine vocals. For fans of shoegaze, even the more indulgent sections will stand out from time to time.
On Forth, the band has crafted a solid album where, in falling back into their comfort zone, they give many of their faithful listeners just what they’ve been waiting for. Even casual fans of the genre might be intrigued, or at least find the singles compelling. But will the casual Britpop fan return to this album in the years to come like they did with a track like “Bittersweet Symphony”? Without some existing emotional attachment to The Verve, it’s doubtful.