Criticism of Elbow can be split into two major categories.
Firstly, one of the main gripes people have with Elbow, is the fact they’re called Elbow. You’re not wrong for thinking this, it’s a truly awful name for a band, Guy Garvey himself admits as much. It’s right there in the upper echelons of worst band names ever. Though perhaps with a little context it becomes a tad more likeable, there is after all a reason for it (no matter how tenuous) No despite what you might think the boys didn’t awaken from a drunken night out, look down at the back of their arm and think you know what that looks sexy let’s call ourselves Elbow. There’s name is taken from a line in BBC TV drama The Singing Detective. When Philip Marlow notes that Elbow is the most sensuous word in the English language, because of the way it makes him feel when he says it. It’s still an awful name, yes, but it’s at least it’s got a story and as Guy Garvey himself noted in a recent Guardian interview, there’s a lot of truth in what Jonathan Franzen said “stories, once embedded in you, actually become who you are”
The second point I find myself less able to understand. With mainstream success comes a certain cynicism from those outside of the mainstream, the wave of good will that greeted Elbow’s fourth and all conquering album The Seldom Seen Kid has long since faded, and whisper it there’s rumours doing the round that they’re well a tad a boring, a touch too anthemic, maybe trying a little too hard to get those lighters in the air. Well that’s just simply a case of people not looking surely? Yes they wrote, “One Day Like This” and it became omnipresent and it was anthemic, but the first single from that album was “Grounds For Divorce” a gravelly blues number, propelled by a wonderfully filthy guitar line and percussion that sounded a lot like someone smashing a glass bottle. Lyrically it was an ode to an old drinking buddy, The Seldom Seen Kid, who was falling through the cracks in the neighbourhood. His death was the inspiration indeed for much of the album, somehow you can’t see Chris Martin having a drinking buddy, let alone writing an album for one.
The evidence has indeed been present throughout Elbow’s career, they’ve always been a good few steps away from M.O.R. Take 2001 single Newborn, would Starsailor have come up with the opening line “I’ll be your corpse in the bathtub, useless” or take the utterly wonderful Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl from 2011’s Build a Rocket Boys!, a wonderfully simple reminiscence on the power of young love, and teenage living, all to the sound of a bonkers electronic piano line that floats and buzzes never settling on anything resembling an obvious melody, sounding so free takes a wonderful amount of careful planning, and in these little minute details and album tracks is where the true beauty of Elbow lies, celebrate their success don’t pigeonhole them with it.
WHAT I LISTENED TO WHEN I LISTENED TO MUSIC THIS WEEK – ELBOW – THE TAKE OFF AND LANDING OF EVERYTHING
There’s a context to this, the sixth studio album by Elbow. Firstly the band are now approaching, or already at, their fourties. To put this in context they first started playing together in 1990, that’s 24 years ago. They released debut album Asleep In The Back, after much delaying, dilly dallying and label disputing, in 2001, even that is now 13 years ago. That means when that was released, let alone written, they were 27 year olds. Now I’m no expert on the ageing process but I believe the outlook of a 40 year old is quite different to that of a 27 year old and entirely removed from that of a 16 year old. The slow passage of time creeps up on us all, and it’s fair to say looking at this album that Mr Garvey has noticed that.
With that ageing process there’s also been a lot of upheaval in both the bands working methods and the bands personal lives. For starters for the first time ever, they took some time off! Following the break-up of Guy’s relationship of 10 years he re-located to New York and asked the rest of the band for a year off (knowing full well at best they’d give him 6 months, in actuality it was just 3) Most of Elbow are now married, there’s numerous kids and lives outside the band, time off is not always an option for bands, so it’s no surprise they couldn’t wait to get back into the studio. Once back into the studio there was also a change in their working practice. Whilst previously they had always written and recorded albums as a band in their entirety, now they went away and wrote individually, recorded in small groups, brought ideas to the band and said this is what I’ve done. Whilst this isn’t exactly the greatest upheaval, or change in process, for a band who have worked the same way for over twenty years it’s a pretty monumental shift out of their comfort zone.
It is interesting that this shift has if anything reverted the band back towards their earlier work. Indeed the record that springs to mind most listening to this is their second record Cast Of Thousands. There’s a similar feel, and relative to their other work, minimalism to both records. Lyrically if it has a likening to any Elbow record it’s possibly Leaders Of The Free World the record that followed Garvey’s previous break up. Though this is a different Guy, if on Leaders he took his own personal problems and put them on a world scale rallying against Bush and politicians in general, here we find a more inward glance at the decisions made, apparently mutually to end this latest relationship. It’s a deeply personal record and in places a heartbreaking one.
Take opening track This Blue World, it starts off with a buzzing electronic drone and a meandering organ line adds a melodic flourish, introducing a romantic tale, as Guy describes the beautiful early days of a relationship, that feels perfect. “Our atoms straining to align, was the universe in rehearsal for us” As it builds to a low chiming electric guitar and a steady drum beat he goes all poetic on us and starts to hint at knowing where things end “In the back of a broken car / when the blizzard blossom flew / reading aloud with our fingers / what we both already knew” Musically it’s a track building slowly and searching for a conclusion it never reaches, however as the warm acoustic buzz of a harmonium takes over for the outro, the vocal chases a melody, as Guy sings about picturing his former lover moving on, having the kids he never wanted to have, or at least committed to having, with her, he notes how “though 3 chambers of my heart beat true and strong with love for another the fourth is yours forever” it’s deeply sad, and beautiful all at once.
The lyrics throughout the album are outstanding, Guy has gradually tweaked his style, though some have criticised him for flying too close to a stereotype of a real Northern man, they don’t seem to have noted the beauty in his words, the man’s a poet. His outlook on life ties in as much with Philip Larkin as it does any of his musical contemporaries, his ability to describe with a stunning attention to detail life’s crucial tiny moments others fail to even notice happening is stunning. On the superb Charge to the sound of a bossanovaish organ and a clanking muted guitar, we see him describing the life and loneliness of a somewhat crotchety old war veteran in such detail it’s stunning. Other reviewers have picked out the line “oh glory be these fuckers are ignoring me, I’m from another century” and it’s certainly a wonderful line, but equally good as a choppy piano rings out the chorus melody, is “I’ve broken jaws protecting laws to keep you free / I made your day so take a seat by me”.
Real Life (Angel) is arguably the greatest love song to an ex-lover ever writte, the sort of heart-broken track that must be unlistenable to the one person it’s about. It starts off life with a pounding drum beat and clanking cymbals paired to a meandering keyboard line and bassy synth drone. As the songs lifted by a repetitively strummed percussive guitar, he notes”You always found peace in the grip of a beat darling / time alone with the pounding of your heart / as it starts to heal / you’ll find a better mirror in another” It breaks down to a reverb heavy guitar, joined by a ominous, rhythmic, pulsating synth, as swathes of strings enter the vocal drops to nearly a spoken word “you’ll never need for a thing in this world / while I have a breath in me / blood in my veins” The whole thing reads like a poem by one of the great romantics, it’s beautiful.
This is not just a downbeat break-up album though, because Guy has always sung of love, but not just in a romantic sense. There’s love for your friends, for cities and landscapes and yes girls, he is a master at adding an air of appreciation for anything and everything. Whilst his ode to his part time home New York Morning is a tad clunky, too anthemic for this album and out of place because of it, his ode to his friends My Sad Captains might just be the best song they’ve ever written. The opening keyboard line sounds like the meandering sound of a fairground ride, the percussion that joins it is warm and beautiful, the addition of a wood block may well be the best use of a wood block in musical history. There’s a stunning trumpet line, meandering in and out, giving the vocal melody space to breath, but also tying in with it in places, the production from keyboardist Craig Potter is throughout stunning and this is one of the best examples. Lyrically it’s an ode to drinking buddies, “Another sunrise with my sad captains with who I choose to loose my mind and if it’s so we only pass this way but once what a perfect waste of time” though make no mistake this waste of time is one he’d take always, indeed perhaps it’s his love of these late night drinking sessions and the friends he finds there with him that put him off settling down in the first place. As a track it’s both maudlin and triumphant, it’s the perfect track for your best mates funeral, and if, like me, you’re a sucker for a bit of boozy late night time wasting with your comrades you’ll adore this track as much as I do.
It’s an album full of wonderful highlights, but also somewhat marred by lesser tracks, there’s a noticeable drop off in quality towards the end, the title track and Colour Fields are a touch repetitive musically, though lyrically the high standard remains and to focus on these inconsistencies and lesser moments would be to pick hairs in a remarkable album.
Ultimately whether you love this album will depend on your opinion of Elbow to date, it wont change your mind, there’s no new tricks, just consistently brilliant song writing and stunning lyrics from one of my own personal favourite poets, indeed as a closing note I’ll leave you with this little passage from Fly Boy Blue / Lunette, the first single from the album and one it’s many highlights
What can be said of the whisky and wine / random abandon or ballast for joy that was scuppered with trust / little more than a boy but besides I’m in excellent company
I’m reaching the age when decisions are made on the life and living, I’m sure last ditch that I’ll ask for more time but mother forgive me I still want a doddle of good Irish whisky and a bundle of smokes in my grave.
But there isn’t words yet for the comfort I get from the gentle lunette at the top of the nape of the neck that I wake to / and where are the words for the leap in my chest when mischief appears either side of the scar on your nose / made by a rose thorn / so you claim by a rose thorn
Now who’s going to try and tell me that’s not a beautiful thing…
The Take Off And Landing Of Everything is out now on Polydor Ltd.