Back in the mid-'90s, when Britpop sorta mattered, it looked like Blur, Oasis and other bands from the land of bad teeth actually had a chance of taking over the world. At least it appeared that way for a couple of years. Then music fans got tired of recycled Beatles riffs and moved on to another Next Big Thing, like electronica or trip-hop or something like that.
The Verve scored its biggest hit a few years after most of its countrymen packed away their Union Jacks and Best of the British Invasion CDs. The band released a pair of albums, including one around the time "Wonderwall" was topping the charts, but 1997's Urban Hymns made them global stars.
Particularly, it was "Bitter Sweet Symphony" that stretched its fan base beyond NME readers. But that hit single cribbed its terrific strings-propelled melody from an old orchestral recording of the Rolling Stones' "The Last Time," and the Verve was forced to give Mick Jagger and Keith Richards songwriting credit and hand over all royalties.
In light of all this, frontman Richard Ashcroft - already a mercurial jackass, known for passing out onstage and, keeping with British-music tradition, publicly feuding with other guys in the band - broke up the Verve. He made some solo records that nobody heard. And last year, he reunited the original quartet for some shows. On Forth, its first album in 11 years, the Verve puts away its troubles, lightens up on the druggy grooves that saturated its other records and resurfaces with an older, slower and surprisingly wiser version of Britpop.
Ashcroft, for one, seems to have mellowed quite a bit from the days when he wearily proclaimed "The Drugs Don't Work." Forth, the Verve's fourth album, is a tranquil, albeit still trippy, stroll through seven-minute songs about Valium skies and Appalachian springs. The simmering rhythm of the opening "Sit and Wonder" sets Forth's pace: Ashcroft isn't in a hurry to get anywhere these days, and he's not going to rush his oblique musings on love and life. He'll get there when he gets there.
And as he looks back on a decade of relative obscurity, Ashcroft sharpens his focus. "Judas" is a soulful love ballad that glides along an airy musical base, while "Noise Epic" channels Joy Division's rare bursts of punk ferocity. "Love Is Noise" even borrows U2's atmospheric rattles and hums for Forth's most stirring track. And even though the word noise appears in two titles, don't fall for these false promises. Forth is the Verve's most uncluttered and, at times, melodic album. There's still a milky haze hanging over Ashcroft and crew, but you can see through it this time.