NEW YORK - In the video to The Verve's latest single, ``Bitter Sweet Symphony,'' bandleader Richard Ashcroft is expressionless as he strides along a city sidewalk bumping into anyone who crosses his path.
It's a simple but arresting image that accompanies one of the year's best songs and top discs, Urban Hymns. Fortunately, crossing the path of the wiry singer inside a record company boardroom proves less perilous, though Ashcroft's willful arrogance at times is enough to knock you off your feet.
``Would any other rock band in the world make a track like this?,'' he says of ``Bitter Sweet Symphony,'' an epic, lushly orchestrated piece of music with a powerful lyrical hook. A few seconds later he follows with another bold pronouncement: ``We want to stand head and shoulders with the giants.
``We want to look at them in the clouds (and say) `Yeah it is nice up here Bob Dylan, John Lennon because I'm Richard Ashcroft. I'm Simon Jones. We're The Verve.' ''
Ashcroft's heavenly ambitions aside, Urban Hymns is one of the sonic highlights of 1997 even if its maker is enrolled in mate Noel Gallagher's school of modesty. Gallagher wrote ``Cast No Shadow'' for Ashcroft and during an Oasis concert here in Manhattan dedicated a song ``to the next biggest band in the world.'' He was referring to The Verve, whose members happened to be in the audience. Both bands were in town plugging records.
Before the concert, Gallagher gave Urban Hymns a thumbs up, albeit qualified. ``I think it's got six really, really strong songs,'' he said backstage before the show. ``There's a couple on there that sort of passed me by but it's really rare that you get 10 tracks on an album that you like.''
There was a time when it was The Verve, not Oasis, who seemed destined for monster commercial success back home in England. But after two critically acclaimed albums, 1993's A Storm In Heaven and 1995's A Northern Soul, the group imploded for a variety of reasons Ashcroft and interview-mate and bassist Simon Jones understandably prefer to play down.
``Many a band would obviously be selling our story to sell records whereas we're different kind of people,'' says Ashcroft, who is 26. ``Like any relationship where people . . . were having problems, the problems were becoming so big that The Verve could no longer exist.''
Now, while Ashcroft and Jones want to avoid trotting out band baggage in half-hour interviews with North American journalists, the British press has been filled with stories blaming the break-up on everything from too many drug-taking sessions and in-fighting to nervous breakdowns experienced by guitarist Nick McCabe and possibly Ashcroft himself. Whatever the reasons, McCabe seems the centre of the difficulties, though he's keeping a low profile since Urban Hymns was released.
The breakup itself didn't last that long. While McCabe retreated to the band's home town of Wigan, England, Ashcroft, Jones and drummer Peter Salisbury began working in the studio on a nameless project. ``But after a few months it became very apparent that there wasn't much point recording the music without Nick, because people would be asking `So what are you going to be called,' '' explains Jones.
Ashcroft continues: ``Instinctively the time came to ring Nick up and say let's do it. I knew I was right . . . because in a week we were in a room, laughing about it all.''
Together, the quintet, which plays its lone Canadian gig at the Phoenix on Tuesday (it sold out in an hour), created an album Ashcroft says reflects ``that period of frustration.'' Lyrically, the songs are straightforward ruminations on the essence of living and dying. There's a wistfulness about the fleetingness of life examined without extraneous detail. ``It's a bitter sweet symphony this life/ try to make ends meet/ you're a slave to the money/ then you die.''
``It's very easy to hide behind imagery . . . but I also know speaking to someone quite direct without wasting time is also very important,'' says Ashcroft of his songcraft on the album. ``A lot of people I admire who've gone before us were able to speak on a very personal level, universal level.''
Though there are several standout tracks on the disc, like ``The Drugs Don't Work'' and the psychedelic swirl of ``Catching The Butterfly,'' it's ``Bitter Sweet Symphony,'' that has the best shot of a worldwide breakthrough. The melancholic refrain, ``I can't change my mode,'' stems from a period when Ashcroft was obsessing about ``the genetic code.
``The whole idea of how much can we break outside the code which we have been given by our ancestors, family, where we're born, our environment, how far can you get out of that. Is it inevitable that all my father's traits are going to start coming out of me in any given situation. It's just about that feeling of sometimes being completely and utterly trapped and having your life written for you.''
Ashcroft considers The Verve's output a refreshing change from the ``surface'' dross dominating the airwaves. ``You put on the radio and no one else seemed to be on that vibe, especially in our country it's like everyone was on this flying the flag, we're all great, everything's all right,'' he says in a gibe that seems aimed at Oasis. ``I like going underneath a little bit. That's our job for God's sake. The job isn't to like paint a pretty picture all the time.''
He's fond of comparing himself to directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola who emerged from New York film schools in the '70s and stamped their identity on that decade. ``I want to look in the mirror in 30 years time and say, `Yeah, at that point in time you were doing it and you were doing it for the reasons you always wanted to do it.' ''
The one sore point about this album is that the band will not collect a cent in royalties to ``Bitter Sweet Symphony.'' The song includes a tiny sample from an Andrew Loog Oldham orchestral arrangement of the Rolling Stones' song ``Last Time.'' Allen Klein, the former Stones manager who owns much of the band's early catalogue, demanded and is now collecting all royalties from the song which is climbing the charts in several countries.
``We were told it was going to be a 50/50 split, and then they saw how well the record was doing,'' says Jones. ``They rung up and said we want 100 per cent or take it out of the shops, you don't have much choice.''
Ashcroft chimes in. ``Obviously at first my reaction . . . I wanted to smash a few doors down. But then you think at the end of the day that song, whoever owns it, we know it's us . . . We've got to go beyond that and realize that song has opened up many doors around the world for us, where people don't know our story about breaking up, they just connected with it.''
His rationalization then gives way to bitterness, trademark bravado and sharp-edged humour.
``On the next album, when we don't go into any of Allen Klein's back catalogue and we make our own symphonies, it makes me burn I'm going to make something so . . . big that you won't believe it and . . . there'll be The Verve and that's it.''
After the outburst, Ashcroft pauses and a grin spreads across his face.
``They (Rolling Stones) just had the biggest hit they've had since `Brown Sugar' probably.''