Mercury Prize shortlist nominees (number: 1998)
en: Urban Hymns [info]
Given the video parodies that followed, it's easy to forget just how majestic Bittersweet Symphony looked and sounded in 1997 (video on YouTube). Or to see how an every-bloke - albeit an extraordinary looking one - like Richard Ashcroft could have made walking down the road appear quite so mesmerising. He wasn't even the first to master the pavement-based, thousand-yard stare (Shara Nelson did it first, achingly beautifully, six years earlier - video on YouTube), but the sheer levels of swagger involved tell you all you need to know about Urban Hymns. Our Richard has a leather jacket on; he couldn't give a smallest of monkeys. But wait - inside he's all broken, and that heart of his is bleeding to an epic, orchestral soundtrack that doesn't just recall The Stones' The Last Time, it actually owes them a fistful of royalties. He's not really tough, he's sad! He's just like you, man!
Of course, it rather cheapens things to class this as album for emotionally stunted British chaps. But if you had grown up - and out of - bellowing about cigarettes and booze with Oasis, and if you had spent the Saturdays of your youth enjoying four-to-the-floor bangers in warehouses, lyrics about drugs that don't work may well have struck an almighty chord (even if Ashcroft was really writing about the death of his father, rather than faulty disco biscuits). So perhaps the huge number of fans who flocked to buy Urban Hymns (over eight million in the UK alone) were people with kids and problems and real-life worries. You know, grown-ups.
The thing is, Urban Hymns still sounds thrilling. Taking a rock blueprint many had failed at (The Stone Roses did their best, paying homage to their beloved Led Zeppelin with Second Coming - but it's a far more emotionally oblique proposition), The Verve created an album that soars with autumnal melancholy. And they get away with it, largely because of the contrast. Grand daubs of baroque rock and massive, sweeping arrangements sit side by side with heartbreaking declarations of failure ("I just can't make it alone" / "I'm on my knees" / "I ain't got no lullaby"). And it's such a strange mixture, both imposing and vulnerable. But it does know which buttons to push. Because those huge, eminently chantable choruses really are just the very thing - whether you're staggering home after last orders, or just trying to stay toasty on the terraces.