August 15, 2008

Music Review: The Verve: The Gospel According to Richard

By Fiona Shepherd


IF YOU subscribe to the gospel of Richard Ashcroft, The Verve are equally blessed and cursed. Blessed with a searing, soaring musical chemistry that will not be denied, but cursed with such volatile artistic temperament that whenever they get together, it's murder. It's like they owe it to the people to empty their souls into their albums, but the personal cost is so high that they can't take the strain and must dissolve the band.

Of their contemporaries, only Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream can talk up mediocre material with such evangelical zeal. Inevitably, little of the creative tension that has caused The Verve to split up and reform twice is actually communicated on their fourth album, Forth (see what they did there?), which is another predictable catalogue of epic pretensions, dozy jams, navel-gazing arrangements and lyrical bluster, bestowed with the usual messianic posturing and imagery - the album sleeve alone suggesting that The Verve occupy a higher plane.

Rock thrives on arrogance, of course, and, if you're a Verve adherent, you've got to love their audacity in ending their latest round of comeback gigs, not with the skyscraping shimmer of History or their orchestral mantra Bittersweet Symphony, but with a totally unfamiliar new track, Love Is Noise.

It transpires that this is about the best they have to offer third time around. Love Is Noise is an obvious choice of comeback single, in that it has something of a hook, even if the lyrics are as insufferably portentous as ever. "Will those feet in modern times, understand this world's affliction, recognise the righteous anger, understand this world's addiction?" ponders Ashcroft, indie rock's self-appointed shaman.

Forth is the essence of comfortable indulgence, with its empty anthems and default space rock setting. Only one track of ten - the mediocre Valium Skies - clocks in at under five minutes.

Seven-minute opener Sit And Wonder is painting on a grand scale without creating much of interest from mountainous drums, undulating bass and rumbling guitars. Psych-rock jam Noise Epic is even longer - an eternity passes before it wigs out like one of Radiohead's feistier numbers, with Ashcroft riding the wave, intoning "I got spirit ... scream if you feel it ... wake up ..."

But the music is completely lacking that sense of urgency that Ashcroft claims is their catalyst. The snoozy Floydian noodle of Numbness is hardly a convincing advert for a band whose slogan is "life is not a rehearsal".

A couple of lighter moments are pleasant, if hardly substantial. Judas is a soothing odyssey, with some of that rather dated charm that The Blue Nile carry off with such style, and I See Houses is shot through with a delicate piano refrain. Columbo even tentatively tests out new territory for this highly conservative band, by marrying a Krautrock groove with one of Ashcroft's more seductive vocals. But let's not get too experimental, shall we?

Soul is in the ear of the beholder, and there are many who hang on Ashcroft's every utterance and Nick McCabe's every riff, but even an ardent Verve follower would recognise that Forth is no stride forward.

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