The Verve returns, rocks (sort of)

The Verve returns for a potentially dangerous comeback.
The Verve is back. And no, not the band that sang 'The Freshmen.' Courtesy of The Verve

The Verve, best known for "Bittersweet Symphony" and the subsequent lawsuit over its Rolling Stones sample, has not released an album in 11 years. Simply put, that's a long time (duh).

Not that its members haven't been busy. Frontman Richard Ashcroft released three so-so solo albums. Guitarist Simon Tong, along with former Blur and Clash members, made an excellent album as The Good, the Bad & The Queen. The list could go on for quite a while. But nevertheless, few bands seem to be able to resist an eventual comeback.

The comeback record is potentially fraught with danger. With Forth, The Verve succeeded in avoiding those dangers about two-thirds of the way. Strictly speaking, it might have been more interesting if the band had made, say, a rap-metal album. But it would have also been totally weird. Forth is truly a return to form in the most basic sense: It's comfortable and a little boring, two things The Verve wasn't in its '90s heyday. But at the same time, it's definitely listenable.

Out of its Britpop kin, including Blur, Oasis and Pulp, The Verve had less snark and a lot more strings. The band didn't seem have the same joie de vivre as its counterparts, being the band that sang lyrics such as the uplifting "Try to make ends meet/You're a slave to money/Then you die." (And that was on their biggest hit, no less.) But what they did have was earnestness, and that set them apart in a good, albeit potentially cheesy, way.

Paradoxically, The Verve also stood out from other Britpop bands because its tracks were heavier and busier, even though its most powerful songs (see "Sonnet," "The Drugs Don't Work," et al.) were powerful because they were more distilled - simpler instrumentation with a focus on the vocals. Forth tends to sound a little muddled at times, with layers and layers of guitars and keys obscuring that trademark earnestness. Some songs, such as the horrifically titled "Valium Skies" (emo!) come close, but still miss the mark.

Other tracks also find The Verve up to its old tricks. The guys are still playing around with vocal sound effects on single "Love Is Noise," an oddly upbeat jangler with background vocals that don't sound entirely human. They've still got a penchant for piano fills and string sections, which both show up in abundance on the shimmering "I See Houses." And Richard Ashcroft is still an engaging singer.

Still, there are some tracks that show glimmers of possible new directions. "Noise Epic" (the title of which might be the perfect summary of the average Verve track) is one of the album's most interesting songs, despite its, ahem, epic length. It starts out quietly with mumbly, almost spoken verses and progresses into a Dismemberment Plan-esque breakdown toward the end. The Verve manages to cram an impressive amount into its eight minutes, though yes, it is eight minutes long.

Despite its shortcomings, as a whole, Forth does hang together well for an album by a band that hadn't played together for a long time, and that alone is impressive. Unfortunately, that cohesiveness is never broken for moments of brilliance, such as with the standout tracks on Urban Hymns, the apex as a band. So yeah, The Verve is reunited, and it feels ... pretty good.


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