The Verve - A Northern Soul
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
"A new decade / the radio plays the sounds we make / and everything seems to feel just right...” A stream of guitars and a man on the edge of a precipice, looking down, are things any better? Are they gonna get any worse? “I will never suffer...” Does he jump? He fucking plummets. When you’ve raged at the sun for sinking past the horizon, when you’ve screamed the skies black with fear and desire and hate, you can’t go back. Not now, not ever.
This album is The Verve's masterpiece. Their debut, A Storm In Heaven, was a shimmering, psychedelic feast for the ears, half-songs drifting in an opiated reverb haze... But this album, A Northern Soul... It's the sound of four lives on the line. Recording sessions were fuelled by drugs and turmoil, songs edited out of jams lasting hours, producer Owen Morris standing on the mixing desk, off his face on ecstasy, hurling chairs at the window into the live room, overwhelmed by sound and emotion, Nick McCabe refusing to play anything twice, unable to play anything twice, Pete Salisbury and Simon Jones locking into grooves and staying there forever while Richard Ashcroft screamed about pain and hurt and filth and death and drugs and lust and seeing your life drift away down the whirlpool of time, “another drink and I wont miss her,” the utter futility of trying to love anyone or anything in a world where everything must live and die and rot before your eyes.
"This Is Music" fuzzes in on a roll of bass and then drops bombs on your face, a twisting mantra dedicated to the one thing that might lift us out of this living shit that we’re in. “Finding myself used to be hard / hard / harder then it’s ever been / now I see the light shining bright in my eyes / if love is a drug then it aint for me / music is my life / the love I need / I’m gonna move on the floor with my sweet young thing / down / down / down / down we go / till we reach the bottom of my soul / this is music...” We don’t need an explanation. We’re not offered one. No choruses, no verses, an album built seemingly from middle eights and fade-outs, twisting, coiling, repeating itself, scorching your soul, "Brainstorm Interlude" is the sound of Bitches Brew but on fire, engulfed in sound, taking dreams that once were beautiful and breaking them into pieces at your feet. "Drive You Home" drifts around a punctured heart for seven minutes, Nick McCabe bending strings and scraping tears over slowly rolling bass, Ashcroft’s eyes open so wide for so long that the gathering dust hurts, “my angel / my lover...” Turning to Blake’s words when your own run out, "History" was done in one take with the orchestra added later and not played by the band again for nearly three years.
Feeling so empty that you wonder if you were ever anything else, dreaming of buying feelings from a vending machine, trying to keep hold of the rope but your hands are red raw and you keep slipping further and further down and you still don’t know if it’s worth trying to climb out... From time to time the burning fades, the pain subsides, and something akin to bliss drifts beneath, but it’s never for very long, it’s never enough to redeem, and soon enough back again into growling chaos, perpetual, deadening motion, unrelenting and insistent.
The songs, such as they are, are long and have little structure, the production is murky and raw and harrowing, the tempo is unchanging to the point of testing endurance. There is no joy or even solace to be found in this record, only unforgiving turmoil. It is a traumatic realisation of the hopelessness of human existence, a document of fractured mentalities, the sound of four young men old before their time, scarred by life, already dead once and now desperately striving to be alive for just a moment before it all fades. Songs in the key of pain. Modern, urban, tortured psychedelic soul. Before this record they were called madmen, tuneless kids high on their own noise, in thrall to their influences. After this record they split up, came back, compromised and found themselves conquering the world, before imploding for a second, final time. But this record... A wall of noise, a sea of anguish, a masterpiece. On a hillside somewhere in the distance a man screams his desolation at the sky and curses his birth, overcome with fear that this emptiness may be all he can ever know. This record is his scream.