Who would have thought that the best song to come from England so far this year would not be by Oasis, Prodigy, Blur, Chemical Brothers, Charlatans U.K. or even Radiohead.
It's the work of a band that almost didn't make it to 1997, The Verve.
The song, of course, is "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (RealAudio excerpt), a space-age meditation on human existence. "Cause it's a bitter sweet symphony, this life," sings The Verve's leader and songwriter, Richard Ashcroft, and what three words have you heard lately that get it any more right?
Ashcroft continues, summing up life with the brevity of haiku: "Trying to make ends meet/ You're a slave to money/ Then you die."
"Bitter Sweet Symphony," which hasn't yet been released in the U.S. (it appears on the group's new album, Urban Hymns, out Tuesday), was a #2 hit in England, and for good reason; it's the kind of song that, once you hear it, you have to hear again. You may well find yourself dropping everything and seeking out a record store that has an import copy if you're lucky enough to heard it on the radio or catch the video on MTV...
The song is built on a fragment of melody -- a riff -- that is repeated over and over and over. The arrangement -- it opens with a sample of strings, then a violin states the riff, unearthly sound effects rise in the mix, the drums kick in and Ashcroft delivers that first line, "Cause it's a bitter sweet symphony..." --
Ashcroft's vocal and his intense lyrics make transcendent what could have come off boring and monotonous.
Instead, he keeps on coming with lyrics that are dead on the money. Does a day go by that you don't feel this?: "I need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me, yeah."
He goes on to ask to hear something that will free him, at least for the duration of a song, from the living hell of "this life." "I let the melody shine, let it cleanse my mind, I feel free now."
Only there's nothing on the radio; he can't find anything to stop the pain. "There's nobody singing to me now."
If "Bitter Sweet Symphony" was the only keeper on Urban Hymns, Ashcroft could still rest assured that he's added a classic to the rock songbook. It's not. Already, another track that appears on the album, "The Drugs Don't Work," has topped the English charts.
A melancholy ballad, "The Drugs Don't Work" is just as powerful as "Bitter Sweet Symphony." "All this talk of getting old, it's getting me down my love," Ashcroft begins. "Like a cat in a bag waiting to drown, this time I'm coming down."
And the low-keyed chorus: "No the drugs don't work/ They just make you worse/ But I know I'll see your face again."
In other words, love can still make things better.
In England, disk two of the two-CD "The Drugs Don't Work" single includes an awesome remix of "Bitter Sweet Symphony" by Mo Wax label head James Lavelle, that strips the song down to drums, and a clavinet-style keyboard for the first three minutes before introducing the strings. You need to hear this.
Urban Hymns is a bitter sweet album that arrives just in time for the leaves to fall and the coming winter. It will make the rest of year just a little easier to get through. "I need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me, yeah."
Richard Ashcroft and The Verve deliver those sounds, and world is a little easier place to live in because of them. [Sun., Sept. 28, 1997, 9 a.m. PDT]