Urban Hymns is the third studio album by English alternative rock band the Verve, released on 29 September 1997 on Hut Records. It earned nearly unanimous critical praise upon its release, and went on to become the band's best-selling release and one of the biggest selling albums of the year. As of 2019[update], Urban Hymns is ranked the 19th best-selling album in UK chart history and has sold over ten million copies worldwide. This is the only Verve album to feature guitarist and keyboardist Simon Tong, who initially joined the band to replace their original guitarist Nick McCabe. McCabe rejoined the band soon after, however, and Tong was considered the fifth member of the band; this makes the album the only one that the band recorded as a five-piece.
The Verve had previously released two albums, A Storm in Heaven in 1993 and A Northern Soul in 1995. The band had only achieved moderate commercial success up to that point, and the band split shortly after their second album due to internal conflicts. Vocalist Richard Ashcroft quickly reformed the group, with Simon Tong, an old friend of the band on guitar, however Ashcroft realised Nick McCabe's unique guitar style was required to complete the true Verve unit and later asked him to return. Tong also remained adding more guitar and keyboard/organ textures, making them a five-piece band and expanding their sound.
The four-piece had already recorded several tracks for the album with Youth as producer, but once McCabe returned they re-recorded several tracks and changed producers to Chris Potter. McCabe said that in the next seven months of work, "... the key tracks were recorded from scratch, but some of them were already there."
The cover photo was taken in Richmond Park, London by photographer Brian Cannon, who was also responsible for the artwork of the band's previous two albums. Cannon said that the simplicity of the image was because Ashcroft simply wanted fans to "listen to the fucking record".
Urban Hymns received widespread critical praise upon its release.Melody Maker hailed it as "an album of unparalleled beauty so intent on grabbing at the strands of music's multi-hued history". Ted Kessler of NME praised Urban Hymns as the band's best album to date, adding that its first five songs alone "pound all other guitar albums this year – bar Radiohead's OK Computer – into the ground with their emotional ferocity and deftness of melodic touch." Similarly, Rolling Stone critic David Fricke deemed it "a defiantly psychedelic record – soaked in slipstream guitars and breezy strings, cruising at narcotic-shuffle velocity – about coping and crashing". The Los Angeles Times' Sara Scribner noted its "lush, intricate, ethereal sound" and felt that The Verve had "delivered an achingly beautiful record that's just desperate enough to never get boring."
In a more mixed assessment, Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune felt that Urban Hymns lacked more songs as memorable as "Bitter Sweet Symphony" and "The Drugs Don't Work" to justify the album's long length.Robert Christgau of The Village Voice cited the latter track as a "choice cut", indicating a good song on "an album that isn't worth your time or money."
Urban Hymns spent 12 weeks at the top of the UK Albums Chart, with a total of 124 weeks on the chart. It also became The Verve's first charting album in the United States, where it debuted at number 63 on the Billboard 200, giving the band their first commercial success in the country.Urban Hymns ultimately peaked at number 23 on the chart and was certified Platinum by the RIAA on 4 April 1998; it remains the group's best-selling album in the United States to date, with over 1.3 million copies sold as of 2009[update].
Melody Maker named Urban Hymns as the number one album of 1997 in its year-end list, and the album ranked at number three on NME's year-end critics' poll.Q also included it in their own list of the best albums of 1997, and it ranked at number 18 on The Village Voice's year-end Pazz & Jop critics' poll. At the 1998 Brit Awards, Urban Hymns won the award for Best British Album and The Verve themselves were awarded Best British Group. The same year, Richard Aschroft won an Ivor Novello Award for Songwriter of the Year. The album was also shortlisted for the Mercury Prize, which was ultimately awarded to Gomez' Bring It On. By April 1999, however, renewed tensions within the band, particularly between Ashcroft and McCabe, would lead The Verve to split up for a second time, at the height of their critical and commercial success.
In the years following its release, Urban Hymns has received much acclaim. In 2000 it was voted number 213 in Colin Larkin's All Time Top 1000 Albums.Q included it in their 1999 list of the 90 best albums of the 1990s, while the magazine's readers voted it the eighteenth best album of all-time in 1998, later moved up to sixteenth place in a similar list compiled in 2006. The Verve were awarded with the first ever Q Classic Album award for Urban Hymns at the 2007 Q Awards, and the following year, Urban Hymns was ranked as the tenth best British album of all time in a poll jointly conducted by Q and HMV. It was also nominated for Best British Album of the Last 30 Years at the 2010 Brit Awards, but lost to Oasis' (What's the Story) Morning Glory?. In 2013, NME ranked it at number 128 in its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
In a retrospective review, Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic called Urban Hymns "a rich album that revitalizes rock traditions without ever seeming less than contemporary", further crediting it as the album that The Verve had "been striving to make since their formation."BBC Music critic Wendy Roby wrote in 2010 that Urban Hymns "still sounds thrilling" and "soars with autumnal melancholy", crediting the album's mix of "massive, sweeping" arrangements and Ashcroft's "heartbreaking" lyrics as its key characteristics.Uncut wrote that "the most striking qualities of Urban Hymns now are its musical coherence and the powerfully sustained mood of melancholic stoicism." On the other hand, Emily Tartanella of Magnet felt that Urban Hymns was undeserving of its accolades, calling it "one of the most bloated, boring and overpraised albums of the '90s."
Note: The original album's digital version and Japanese version has "Deep Freeze" as a separate track following "Come On", without the silence in between (on the Japanese version due to the limited duration of the CD). In the 2017 digital and physical remastered versions, both tracks are joined with the silence.