Even in the best of times, the Verve has traveled a rocky path. The Greater Manchester quartet is as renowned for its richly textured stadium-size anthems as it is for its members' bouts with addiction and each other. The on-again, off-again act first bid the world farewell following its turbulent, Ecstasy-fueled recording sessions for 1995's A Northern Soul. The band resurfaced two years later with Urban Hymns, the breakthrough that spawned the massive "Bitter Sweet Symphony," but legal complications arising from the use of a Rolling Stones sample forced the Verve to relinquish the single's royalties. A second breakup was announced in '99 following a tour marred by infighting and the resignation of guitarist Nick McCabe.
Such self-destructive drama only makes Forth, the Verve's spirited return after a near-decade-long hiatus, that much more surprising. After so many years of relative silence — singer Richard Ashcroft released a trio of soul-searching solo manifestos, with decidedly mixed results — the band has rediscovered its muse, producing a solid collection of tightly structured rockers. Forth finds Ashcroft's seductive snarl gloriously intact on "Sit and Wonder," a moody slice of bass-driven psychedelia, and "Noise Epic," a hard-charging, eight-minute eruption that recalls A Northern Soul's thunderous riffing. Not that the band has forsaken its penchant for pretty, introspective ballads. "Rather Be," with its uncharacteristically upbeat, sing-along chorus ("But I'd rather be here than be anywhere/Is there anywhere better than here?") fits the bill. Despite the trite sentimentality, the track stands out as the album's blissful highlight. And amid rumors that Ashcroft and McCabe are already back to their quarrelsome ways, its sunny refrain is enough to give fans a glimmer of hope that the Verve's Forth will not be its last.