Recently, I was invited to contribute reviews of two albums for a BBC Radio 6 Music article charting the influential releases of 1997 as part of the station’s celebrations for Radiohead’s OK Computer which was released in the tune of that year. The full article can be read online here at www.bbc.co.uk, but here are my two contributions.
Blur – Blur
Blur might have claimed victory in the chart battle of 1995’s great Britpop showdown – their single ‘Country House’ went to No.1 ahead of Oasis’ ‘Roll With It’ – but there was a sense among admirers and detractors alike they lost the war when it came to the subsequent albums. The Gallaghers’ (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? took the scene’s retro leanings into timeless territory, while Damon Albarn and co.’s The Great Escape was occasionally guilty of nudging it towards caricature. Singed by that experience – not to mention the spotlight of chart topping fame – if the simplicity of making the fifth album of your career eponymous wasn’t hint enough, ahead of its release Blur spoke about the need to return to a rawer, less elaborate form of songwriting as they embraced the influence of lo-fi American fuzz merchants like Pavement. Yet (as the title also suggests) Blur is no retreat from being Blur. Slacker guitars, taught drums and booming basses were co-opted, but they augmented rather than replaced the band’s DNA. ‘Song 2’ might be the crunching anthem that finally won Blur acclaim in the States, but it’s a quirky, poppy re-imaging of grunge; ‘Death Of A Party’, ‘On Your Own’ and ‘Look Inside America’ were all melancholic and purposely frayed at the edges, but each was underpinned by Blur at their melodic best, while the near-spoken word ‘Essex Dogs’ even allowed Albarn room to scratch his storytelling itch. With ‘You’re So Great’ marking guitarist Graham Coxon’s first lead vocal on a Blur album, rather than stripping everything back to basics this static-drenched escape from a potential artistic cul-de-sac, proved to be a horizon-expanding record that paved the way for solo albums, operas, Gorillaz… and the Blur we still know and love today.
The Verve – Urban Hymns
There was shock when The Verve imploded in 1995 just months after releasing a career-defining second album, A Northern Soul. Yet there was also the sense it was a ‘very Verve’. The announcement of the band’s apparently acrimonious split was accompanied the release of their William Blake-inspired and highly appropriately single ‘History’, while the artwork for one of its CDs featured the band stood beneath a cinema marquee emblazoned with the declaration that “All Farewells Should Be Sudden”. If ever there was a band who seemed built to break, good at it almost, it was The Verve. They broke, and they broke hard, their stormy and sometime fragile music a direct reflection of the personal relations within the group. So imagine everyone’s surprise – Richard Ashcroft and co.’s in particular – when Bitter Sweet Symphony was released just two years after this implosion. Ingeniously built around the rising sample of an orchestra playing The Rolling Stones’ ‘The Last Time’ (which subsequently saw Mick Jagger and Keith Richards added to the songwriting credits), the song was taken to euphoric levels by the Ashcroft’s “been there, seen it, survived” vocals and Nick McCabe’s soaring guitars. Simply it was the sound of experience and hope on record. Somehow out of their own personal darkness, The Verve had stepped defiantly back into the light. It was this revelation that fuelled the subsequent album, Urban Hymns. ‘Lucky Man’, ‘Sonnet’ and ‘The Rolling People’ all fizzed with this new found, slightly scuffed positivity, fuzz-drenched dreams ‘Neon Wilderness’ and ‘Velvet Morning’ ensured the band’s sonic storm making was not forgotten, while ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ matched ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’s alchemy of bringing it all together. It couldn’t last, of course. For a band so good at splitting-up, fresh tensions let to a second break (and The Verve would later reform and split yet again), but Urban Hymns marked a rare moment of balance: between darkness and light; between hope and despair; between sonic storms and swooning sing-a-longs and, most remarkably, between the band’s members. For a brief moment in 1997 The Verve worked once more and it was glorious.