The Verve, Bitter Sweet Symphony: behind the meaning of the song

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When I heard again The Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony, I was walking towards the train station. It was 8am on a Wednesday and I wasn’t yet ready to start the day. I was thinking back to the sad stories that surrounded this song – and the band that created it. The English group no longer exists; it hasn’t done since they broke up in 2009.

Bitter Sweet Symphony, the first track off Urban Hymns, is their most famous song. It is so well-known, in fact, that it was ranked 382nd in Rolling Stone’s 500 best songs of all time. Thanks to a complicated copyright controversy, it’s also the song from which the group hasn’t yet earned a penny. The band had agreed on a license from Decca Records to use a five-note sample from The Rolling Stones’ The Last Time, performed by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra.

No problems would have arisen if they had not used more than the five agreed notes, and the song had not had an incredible success. But the combination of those two elements led The Rolling Stones to act in order to secure the rights to the song and be named as authors. Of course, they succeeded in doing so.

But let’s go back to my Wednesday, which started without any verve of its won (pun intended). The song is perfect for a day when you’ve got off to a bad start. When Richard Ashcroft introduced the song at Glastonbury 2008, he shouted, “Life is a struggle, every Monday morning is a struggle!”

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

How many songs with bitter lyrics and low guitar and bass notes do we know? There are probably countless. But then, one day, this came along. Slowly, the symphony of the strings started to accompany my morning. I experienced the metamorphosis of those streets; everything vibrated with the beauty of the lyrics, hauntingly accompanied by violins to the end. I thought that it was impossible that everyone else on the street couldn’t see it too. How could a mere pair of headphones and my private experience contain such energy?

The strings don’t give up for a second; the beauty of that melody insists, trying to dominate the singer’s voice. And the more he cries, the louder they play. It’s like a duel.

Cause it’s a bitter sweet symphony, that’s life
Trying to make ends meet
You’re a slave to the money then you die
I’ll take you down the only road I’ve ever been down
You know the one that takes you
to the places where all the veins meet, yeah

No, change, I can change
But I’m here in my mold
But I’m a million different people
from one day to the next
I can’t change my mold
No, no, no, no, no…

The music grows as Ashcroft walks through an anonymous crowd, and it rises above this monotonous routine. Is it really possible, it says, that it all ends here, with a race for money, with those two extremes, life and death, that have no explanation? The street is used as a symbol for life. I suspect it’s the same analogy as used by Green Day in the opening to Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

Well I never pray
But tonight I’m on my knees, yeah
I need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me, yeah
I let the melody shine, let it cleanse my mind, I feel free now
But the airwaves are clean and there’s nobody singing to me now

I need to know that someone feels my pain; I need their mercy, I need to be seen for who I really am. Loneliness is not being alone, but not feeling loved. And those who love you are those who are next to you when you suffer; those who are there when you need to be heard.

That’s why he’s praying – the lyrics as a whole are a prayer. He cannot speak to anyone, but the symphony inside his head must be shared; it cannot and should not remain unresolved.

I can’t change. He repeats it continuously, just like the symphony, because it’s what his heart feels. He’s repeating to himself. When all around us seems to be inconsistent, we return to our internal struggle, to our dissatisfaction. The change starts when we start looking for something more.

I’ll take you down the only road I’ve ever been down
Ever been down

And then the final verse of the song draws the lyrical journey to an end in an enigmatic matter. Speaking of extremes that meet each other: is pain the thing that triggers change? Is there a path that allows us to purify ourselves? These notes are us. We don’t know who we are or where we want to go, if we don’t listen to our hearts.

That’s why, more than twenty years later, we still love Bitter Sweet Symphony. If a song goes beyond the surface of our being and tells us who we are, it will remain true forever.

Rating: 3.0/5. From 2 votes.
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