Written and recorded while on ecstasy, 1995’s A Northern Soul is the unrelenting rock follow-up to The Verve’s hazy psychedelic A Storm in Heaven. Richard Ashcroft has a face that even a mother would say “you’ve got mostly your father in ya” so he wouldn’t grace the mags as often as sexy Jarvis Cocker or boyish Damon Albarn. It didn’t help that while the Pulp, Oasis/Blur, Suede trifecta was creating glossy, arty pop music, Verve had a hold on self-indulgent rock and roll. But if not inspiring giddy adoration, “Mad Richard” as the British press called him, did command respect, or at least awe. Oasis’ arrogance may have come off as childish, Verve’s reeked of nothing but an envious cool.
A Northern Soul is a rollicking roadtrip of an album, filled with driving jams that harken back to their psychedelic days but with far more bite. “I stand accused just like you of being born without a silver soon” Ashcroft growls in This is Music, one of the few songs on the album that dip below five minutes. With reverb-heavy guitar lines that stretch on and on against Ashcroft’s vocals it is an album perfect for driving windows down on an empty highway.
But like any roadtrip, there are moments of poignant calm, such as the yearning On Your Own, “All I want is someone who can fill the hole, in the life I know” Ashcroft croons, or the nearly existentialist and certainly heartbreaking History, which not only is the first Verve track to fully feature strings but might be the best, yes even better than their hit, Bittersweet Symphony. Verve, for all its sex, drugs and rock n roll never fails to address the paralyzing fears of the passage of time and morality in general, without breaking their seamless, energetic stride.
A near 180 from the shoegazey debut album and lacking the hits and chart success of their third, A Northern Soul is a powerful album whose hypnotizing riffs and endless jams command attention and perhaps offer the most succinct [a relative term as the album is an hour long] picture of who Verve is as a band, and perhaps more painfully, what they had to offer if it didn’t all fall apart both before and after Urban Hymns. It’s a musing on anguish and existence that doesn’t become navel-gazing or trite, it’s a jamming rock album that never veers into a silly faux-masculinity, it’s Verve’s masterpiece, however arguably.