What the hell do The Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’ and Robbie Williams’ ‘Life Thru A Lens’ have in common? A lot it turns out

Sam Walton's been looking back on 1997's biggest LPs on their 20th birthdays - including these two, one more stinking than the other

On 22nd February 1996, during the peak of Oasis’ imperial phase, BBC London agreed to let Noel Gallagher present their afternoon slot as a one-off. The show consisted of fairly standard Gallagherian slop, opening and closing the programme with the Beatles, with one notable exception: his interview guest was Robbie Williams, who had left Take That the previous August and spent the intervening six months trying to elbow his way into Britpop. In a surprisingly pally encounter, the pair suggest that it was Oasis who convinced Robbie to ditch his former employers, and that, encouragingly, Gallagher would happily write Williams’ debut solo album for him. Williams, one imagines, went away from the afternoon love-in finally feeling endorsed, ideas brewing in his head.

A little under a year later, Gallagher paid a visit with his younger brother to Olympic Studios in west London, where The Verve, having recently reformed, were in the thick of recording their third album. Richard Ashcroft played the pair the newly finished ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ and sought advice from Noel on other work in progress, while Liam offered backing vocals to what would become the album’s closing track. The following week, Noel detailed his trip for NME, reporting that The Verve were “the second-best band in Britain”. Ashcroft, one imagines, read that as a challenge.

These two meetings were entirely unrelated to one another, and in London’s cliquey landscape of the time fairly unremarkable. They would have remained so, too, were it not for the release, twenty years ago today, of both The Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’ and Robbie Williams’ ‘Life Thru A Lens’. Sure, the niceties of release schedules usually carry little significance, and admittedly, at the time, a blockbuster comeback from an indie heavyweight seemed to have little in common with a boyband deserter’s debut. Twenty years on, however, there’s an odd synchronicity to this pair: here are two albums strangely desperate to box themselves into a dying Britpop template despite neither act being a natural fit for it; two albums making rather lumpen, lowest-common-denominator stabs at articulating the human condition, and two albums that danced around the fringes of the Oasis circus in very different ways but both becoming overwhelmed by Noel Gallagher’s 1997 taste for populist bombast. Perhaps most tellingly, though, both albums combine to point towards the rise of what Alan McGee would term “bedwetter rock” a couple of years hence, in the meantime occupying the interregnum that occurred between the downfall of Britpop and the polite indie ascension of first Travis, then Coldplay and, eventually, the likes of Ed Sheeran.

It’s perhaps understandable why Williams would want to leap on the Britpop bandwagon. After all, in 1996, with Cool Britannia in full flow, few types of music could have been more appealing to any 22-year-old white male northerner, let alone one recently freed of a contractually obliged shackling to wipe-clean pop. That blind eagerness for cathartic blow-out is all over ‘Life Thru A Lens’, leaving the entire album carrying a rather embarrassing sense of all-the-gear/no-idea (a phrase likely true in multiple ways for Williams at the time). Even within that, however, the likes of the title track and ‘Old Before I Die’ in particular, which pillage mid-ranking Britpop with little of the accompanying credibility, ring especially naff, revealing Williams as the callow Johnny-come-lately that he clearly wishes he wasn’t.

For The Verve, however, the reasons for their stylistic shift Britpopwards are somewhat more opaque. Sure, there was Ashcroft’s ongoing friendly rivalry with Noel Gallagher that might’ve prompted him to take the kernel of a song like ‘Weeping Willow’ and bloat it into a soupy singalong, but there’s a concurrent sense throughout ‘Urban Hymns’ that its grandiose aesthetic might actually have been accident of compromise. After all, the majority the album has its foundation in Ashcroft’s mid-pace four-chord open-mic solo acoustic guitar; from there, any attempt to integrate a noisy band and an expensive studio will surely make for fairly clumsy results. Whatever the reasons, though, the outcome must have initially appealed to Ashcroft – another mid-20s white northerner longing for recognition – as much as it did to Williams, even if the jarring fit on Ashcroft’s part is on account of him of having too much previous form within indie music, not too little.

A common intent of the two albums, however, can be found in their biggest singles, both of them ballads about ailing relatives that seek to be just personal enough to retain their dignity, but universal enough to soundtrack mass public emote-alongs. Indeed, so immediately effective at this was ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ that it briefly became the unofficial Princess Diana anthem: having been released, by chance, the day after she died, it went straight to number one in the singles chart while the officially sanctioned Elton John ditty was still putting its shoes on. ‘Angels’, meanwhile, took a little longer to become statistically the nation’s most popular funeral song, but when it did, it pushed exactly the same buttons as The Verve’s counterpart, reaching for a paradoxical mass intimacy in the first half before bounding out into a coda/instrumental section that’s just amorphously poignant enough to serve as a proxy for any given listener’s specific woes.

Neither album stops at one example of this, and while The Verve’s further attempts – the country-rock tinges of ‘Sonnet’ and ‘Lucky Man’, and refreshingly uncluttered ‘One Day’ – outstrip in both construction and execution the rather mawkish, self-involved offal that comprises Williams’ ‘Killing Me’ and ‘One Of God’s Better People’, all of them feel today, to a greater or lesser degree, like prophets of a more pedestrian, middle-aged and unenquiring breed of post-Britpop that would be led into the new millennium by the likes of Embrace and Starsailor, in which gnomic lyrics and simple, maudlin melody would unite huge outdoor concerts in a combination of self-affirmation and catharsis, all at the expense of anything more distinctive.

And that result is instructive: while Noel Gallagher’s fingerprints are forensically provable on both ‘Urban Hymns’ and ‘Life Thru A Lens’, it’s also no coincidence that Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’ draws just as much from the opening bars of William’s ‘Lazy Days’ as it does from The Verve’s ‘Space And Time’. Around this time, Paul Morley described The Verve as “like Céline Dion for teenage boys”; with Robbie Williams’ invasion of that aesthetic territory serving only to expand its demographic while preserving the function, it’s no wonder Chris Martin et al became, shortly afterwards, the biggest group in the world.

All this isn’t to say, though, that ‘Urban Hymns’ and ‘Life Thru A Lens’ are actually particular similar, even if they do stand for uncannily similar things. Indeed, while there’s a sense that with ‘Urban Hymns’, The Verve were trying to outdo their peers and become leaders in their field, Williams’ ersatz Britpop suggests he’s happy just to be in the same room. The Verve nearly manage their goal, too: the fleeting peaks that bookend ‘Urban Hymns’ – the majestically imperious ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ and ferocious, big-skied groove of ‘Come On’ – are tantalising teases of the kind of totemic brilliance the band might’ve achieved had they all pulled in the same direction and Ashcroft matched his self-conviction with nuance. By contrast, ‘Life Thru A Lens’ has nothing artful to it – for all Williams’ attempts to break away from the consumerist pop constraints of his boy(band)hood, it seems old habits die hard.

The following summer, as The Verve played the same sort of homecoming enormo-gigs that Oasis had enjoyed in the previous one, there was perhaps relief that an apparently clapped-out Noel Gallagher had managed to anoint his successor so seamlessly: The Verve’s stratospherically swelling, earnestly vague anthemic rock was seen as the ideal tool to smooth over the disappointment of Be Here Now, and potentially even push on adventurously alongside 1997’s other guitar-based innovators like Radiohead and Spiritualized. The problem was, they smoothed it too much then split up acrimoniously before they could retexture what they’d done, leaving the path clear, five years later, for a fat dancer from Take That to sell out three nights at Knebworth playing imitation rock music to half a million people. Despite Williams’ shows breaking Oasis’ record for the biggest ever gigs in the UK, Gallagher Sr was this time uncharacteristically silent. The parasite, it seems, had finally engulfed his host.

Also out this week in 1997:
Portishead – Portishead (Go Beat), chart peak #2
Elton John – The Big Picture (Rocket), chart peak #3
Rolling Stones – Bridges To Babylon (Virgin), chart peak #6
Bob Dylan – Time Out Of Mind (Columbia), chart peak #10
Fluke – Risotto (Virgin), chart peak #45
EPMD – Back In Business (Def Jam), chart peak #100

To read all the other entries in Sam’s Twenty Years Ago Today blog, click here.