In the 14 years since 1996, there hasn’t been anything quite like The Verve Pipe’s Villains. It’s not the album’s swagger or its punch; other bands have very successfully emulated both. It might have something to do with that funny movement that developed in the early 2000s, when a groundswell of angry/sad, often tattooed men with high, somewhat childlike voices remarkably drowned out the adult males in rock music. (Yes, I’m talking about emo.)
Every time I listen to the title track from Villains, I’m blown away that I used to hear this song on the radio. It's the kind of song I always wish bands would release as singles but never do. A brooding rocker about the media’s elevation of criminals to celebrity-status, “Villains” is not a catchy song. The insistent refrain, “See how they twist and shout,” is more harpoon than hook. And although the song didn’t track higher than #22 on rock radio, I still find it amazing that it was released as a single at all. Only in the 90s would a major label even consider releasing it as the follow up to a smash like “The Freshmen.”
Speaking of The Verve Pipe’s only #1 hit, it must be bittersweet for a band to write its best song so early in its career. Songs like “The Freshmen” are truly once-in-a-lifetime gems that only very, very luckiest songwriters stumble upon. The guys in TVP had to know they could never top it. “The Freshmen” first appeared on the band’s 1992 debut indie release, I’ve Suffered a Head Injury. It was strangely removed from the album’s second pressing released later that year, was left off the 1993 follow-up Pop Smear, and then got reworked for Villains. Even then, it was not released as a single for a full year after Villains hit stores, preceded by minor hits "Photograph" and "Cup of Tea." Years later, Vander Ark admitted that the story of his best friend’s callous treatment of a girlfriend who had an abortion was actually autobiographical (albeit without the suicide).
While Villains immersed itself in the distorted, heavy guitars of mid-90s post-grunge, it added subtle layers of texture, such as the keyboards in “Penny is Poison,” a pretty but somber tune about resignation to reaping what we sow. While Penny may be awful to the song's narrator, he accepts it ("Penny is poison but I don't mind), admitting that he's been just as awful to other women ("Starving the love of the marvelous / I was the Penny to previous").
Penny is Poison:
Indeed, Villains is pervaded by similar themes of numbness and disinterest. The characters are world-weary, but rather than grow bitter, they are afflicted with ennui. They have given up. The subject in "Villains" begins to lose interest in the "villain on the cover / of every major magazine" by the simple act of a dropped subscription card (perhaps also a comment on making money off the celebration of evil?). In "Drive You Mild," Vander Ark acknowledges he "should drive you wild," but settles for underwhelming. Elsewhere, he "scraped the bargain basement / bought a lover less than fantastic / Spoke to me barely, if at all." Whether in love or grander themes, the album as a whole suggests that the true villains are within us.