The Songs We Will Sing.

# 31 Bitter Sweet Symphony . The Verve. 1997.

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I would often use music in my classroom teaching to support a point I wanted the students to get. The Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony was used to demonstrate an example of oxymoron. Oxymoron is the poetic term applied to a word/s which demonstrate the double sided existence of an idea or object. Awfully good, same difference, original copy, frozen heat, sweet sorrow and bittersweet are some examples of oxymoron.

The original Verve members met at their high school in Greater Manchester around 1990. They have had a bit of an on again / off again musical career, splitting up and then reforming several times. Their Urban Hymns album released in 1997 brought them into commercial success. Bitter Sweet Symphony became a world wide hit and as of 2019 their Urban Hymns album had sold over 10 million copies worldwide.

the verve URBAN HYMNS album cover.

In 1997 I was a single parent living with my four “flatmates”. One a uni student, two secondary school students and one in preschool. Life was busy and money was scarce but we had music. It was a friend of my son’s who introduced me to The Verve and right away I fell in love with Bitter Sweet Symphony. I love the opening symphonic bars and I love the message of the song. I think the 90s music, which is the music of my children’s teenage years, is much darker than the music of my youth but if you listen there is still a story going on and a message, a point to get.

Bitter Sweet Symphony starts out with a very Ecclesiastesy idea; ‘Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony that’s life, Tryna make ends meet, you’re a slave to the money then you die. i.e. Life is pretty meaningless, what is the point? And Life is bittersweet, and we do spend a lot of it earning money, working and then dying. The lyrics seem to suggest that the singer is on this same treadmill and he really would like to change, but it is hard; he can’t seem to break out of the mold life has set him in, although he keeps saying repetitively, I can change, I can change. He feels fragmented, ‘a million different people from one day to the next, and defeated I can’t change my mold’. All this has brought him to his knees; Well I’ve never prayed,
But tonight I’m on my knees, yeah. I need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me, yeah.

The title of the song is an oxymoron but the whole of the song is a contest of paradoxical ideas. It highlights the internal struggle with self, the idea of wanting to change but finding it so difficult, almost impossible to do because of being stuck in “a mold.” Finishing with I’ll take you down the only road I’ve ever been down, it seems the singer will stay with what is familiar.

Life is a bitter sweet symphony and each and every note in the symphony of life has its purpose, so our best plan is to embrace it and grow.

The Verve – Bitter Sweet Symphony (Official Music Video) – YouTube

I have inserted 2 video clips. The first shows Richard Ashcroft miming the lyrics while walking down a busy London street. He just keeps walking, as though he is walking through life, not changing his stride, not veering from his course, bumping into other people and people bumping into him. He knocks a young woman off balance and she falls. He seems determined yet inconsiderate of those around him.

The Verve – Bittersweet Symphony (Glastonbury 2008) – YouTube

The second is of The Verve who were chosen to close the 2008 Glastonbury festival, they did so with some songs from ‘Urban Hymns’. Here is the clip of Bitter Sweet Symphony, which in my opinion is their best song.

Glastonbury Festival is a five-day festival of contemporary performing arts that takes place in Pilton, Somerset, in England. In addition to contemporary music, the festival hosts dance, comedy, theatre, circus, cabaret, and other arts. Wikipedia

‘ Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony that’s life, and truly, who would have it any other way?

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