The Verve Back With Bitter Sweet Hit

Band returns from hard times after break-up with two top-10 hits in the U.K.

If it takes an ugly break-up to produce a gorgeous song such as The Verve's British hit, "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (RealAudio excerpt), then they should consider going their separate ways more often.

Written after the band split following the release of 1995's A Northern Soul, lyrics such as "I need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me, yeah/ I let the melody shine/ Let it cleanse my mind, I feel free now/ But the airways are clean and there's nobody singing to me, now," attest to the love of music that drove Richard Ashcroft to re-unite the band for their finest hour.

The song, which peaked at #2 on the U. K. charts, will hit U.S. shores on Sept. 30 when the Verve release their third album, Urban Hymns. The band's biggest hit in England until it was supplanted by their first #1 single, "The Drugs Don't Work," "Bitter Sweet Symphony" is built on a slow-rolling fat beat, a pomp and circumstance violin loop and singer "Mad" Richard Ashcroft's elliptical, snake-swallowing-its-tail lyrics. It is a razor-sharp synthesis of the previously scattered elements that have made the Verve's earlier efforts energizing and frustrating, often at the same time.

It is an infectious, glorious piece of pop music.

The band's split came after the emotionally-rending sessions for A Northern Soul, during which members have admitted in U.K. accounts of having indulged more than was absolutely necessary. Shortly after the album's release, Ashcroft phoned guitarist Nick McCabe and announced that he was throwing in the towel.

"I knew I that I had to do it earlier on," Ashcroft told The Face magazine, "but I just wouldn't face it. Once you're not happy in anything, there's no point in living it, is there? But my addiction to playing and writing and being in this band was so great that I wouldn't do anything about it."

The split didn't last long. The band, minus McCabe, were back in the studio within a few weeks. Ashcroft approached former Stone Roses guitarist John Squire, now of the Seahorses, about joining up but was turned down. Former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler was mentioned, then nixed. McCabe eventually came back.

With the reunion comes something of a new sound. Gone are the sometimes meandering pseudo-symphonic washes of free-form shoegazer jams of their 1993 debut, A Storm in Heaven and its less-focused follow-up, A Northern Soul. In are emotionally-resonant electronic sounds and humming guitars, topped-off by a staccato, narcotic violin hook that crawls over your brain and won't let go, anchoring itself like the barbs of a wasp's stinger, sawing in deeper the more you play it.

Ashcroft's lyrics for "Bitter Sweet Symphony," at first tossed-off-sounding, are delivered with just the right casual mix of attitude and nonchalance to give them sonic heft and bulls-eye emotional accuracy. "Trying to make ends meet," he sings. "You're a slave to money/ Then you die."

The chattering, dead-pan vocal hook, "No change/ I can change/ I can change/ I can change/ But I'm here in my mold/ I am here in my mold/ And I'm a million different people from one day to the next/ I can't change my mold/ No, no, no, no no," is given a blank-faced visual cousin in the song's video, in which a gaunt Ashcroft bullies his way down a city street in a zombie trance, tossing shoulders into fellow pedestrians and walking over car hoods as if on a laser-guided mission to some unseen destination.

In a typical Verve bad luck story, though, the band won't be receiving any royalties from "Bitter Sweet Symphony" due to a barely-decipherable sample from a Rolling Stones song. Buried in the mix is a lick from an Andrew Loog Oldham orchestral version of the Rolling Stones' "The Last Time." Once the record began to hit the top of the charts, the band was served with notice that contrary to the 50 percent royalty they believed they would have to pay to ex-Stones manager Allen Klein, who administers the Stones' catalogue, they would be handing over a full 100 percent of the publishing royalties as well as a change of the writing credit. All this makes Ashcroft's lyric, "You're a slave to money, then you die?" seem particularly appropriate.

The 13-track album was co-produced by the band, Youth (ex-Killing Joke) and Chris Potter and also features the songs, "The Drugs Don't Work," "Catching the Butterfly," "Space and Time," "Sonnet," "The Rolling People," "Neon Wilderness," "Weeping Willow," "Lucky Man," "One Day," "This Time," "Velvet Morning" and "Come On." [Mon., Sept. 22, 1997, 9 a.m. PST]