If ever a band seemed poised for a triumphant comeback it's the Verve, the space rock band that imploded just after the success of its third album, 1997's Urban Hymns. The Verve always acted as if their greatness was self-evident and preordained, that it was only a matter of time for the rest of the world to come around and acknowledge their majesty, so when they finally began to conquer the globe with Bitter Sweet Symphony it felt like a logical conclusion to their rise, which only meant their sudden implosion felt anticlimactic, as if the movie ended before the final reel unspooled. Unlike some bands, it seemed necessary for the Verve to re-form so they could complete their story, to prove that their success was no fluke -- but it was equally true that for lead singer Richard Ashcroft a reunion was also necessary, as his solo career drifted aimlessly on murmured cryptic confessionals supported by listless acoustic guitars. He needed a jolt of energy from a real rock band, especially one powered by guitarist Nick McCabe, who wasn't really doing much of anything anyway, so it seemed natural for the bandmembers to set aside their differences -- differences that led to a split way back in the '90s, after the release of 1995's A Northern Soul -- to reunite for 2008's Forth, a record that's just slightly sprightlier than the album's punning title.
Picking up precisely where Urban Hymns left off, Forth is stately and sweeping, an album where the rockers are as slow and deliberate as the ballads. Apart from the cacophonic wailing hook and glitzy club beat of the lead single, "Love Is Noise," there is no dissonance or shock here, only familiarity, and this in turn leads to a surprise -- as by delivering exactly what was expected, Forth reveals that the Verve's story was pretty much complete already, with each of their records functioning as a fully realized act in their progression. Compared to the dramatic introduction of A Storm in Heaven, the escalation of A Northern Soul, and the wistful conclusion of Urban Hymns, Forth is an extraneous epilogue, finding our characters ten years older but not all that wiser. Certainly, the only notable difference is that the songwriting isn't as sharp as it was on Urban Hymns, something that isn't a great surprise after Ashcroft's leaden solo albums, but at least here there's not an emphasis on hushed introspection, but rather the band in all its slow, roiling glory. This reliance on sighing waves of guitars -- pulsating relentlessly like a sepia-toned lava lamp -- might recall the heyday of A Northern Soul in its intent, but in practice this is like the trippier moments of Hymns, as the guitars don't rage, they glide, the rhythms don't push, they relax. This music is spacious yet earthbound, pretty but not wondrous, grounded by an Ashcroft who has lost his madness and a band that is finding its groove again, not moving forward. Forth adds nothing to the narrative -- it doesn't expand on the past or suggest the future -- yet it doesn't detract from the established story either. It's pleasant, even comforting, which makes Forth as pure a sequel as possible: it's an album that offers more of the same many years too late, which will be enough for the legions of faithful who have waited to hear all the old characters back together again, yet seems a little pointless for those who no longer remain quite so invested in the band.