I’m a self-confessed contrary sod: I don’t listen to the radio out of choice, except for sport and Radio 4; I only read Knowledge for the free CD, and the Wire to look pretentious, not a sniff of NME, Q, Rolling Stone et al. I’m not on the button, I’m not in tune with sound, and my sister scorns my lack of awareness about the latest chart sensation.
I tend to float along on recommendations, standout album covers, reputations and internet ‘research’. Still, Elbow are my compilations band – both in terms of what I do with them, and how I heard about them in the first place. Back in 2001, on one of those compilation CDs that a label puts out to show off its new talent, I picked up on Elbow. To me, then, listening to metal, and having the most passing acquaintance with indie music, this was all rather new; ‘Red’ was the last track on the second disc, buried away amongst other, bigger, more successful tunes. Elbow were thus relegated to ‘the slightly boring chaps on that tatty old CD I’ve got buried under the piles of papers somewhere in that mess of a room’….
Cue 2004. Back when I did Q, they did a compilation in time for Glastonbury, by which time, Elbow had headlined, ‘Cast of Thousands’ was a fairly big hit, and ‘Grace Under Pressure’ was ringing in my ears. Thousands singing ‘We still believe in love, so fuck you’ has a powerful effect on the 16 year old mind, and a greater appreciation for the subtle (and sometimes, not so subtle) textures of prog rock made me think ‘hold on’. Here was something worth buying. I left it for a couple of years, and then, in the grand student binge of music, drink, music, food, learning and music, I listened to that album in a big way.
But, wait, stop. This is not a review of ‘Cast of Thousands’ – wait a week or two, gentle reader – but the Mercury Prize winning, Jools Holland perfomed, brilliantly drawn, wonderfully produced, sharply written ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’. Coming only three years after ‘Leaders Of The Free World’, a love letter to Manchester (that’s a town in the North West of England, for the geographically challenged), it’s the natural progression from that more song driven, slightly leaner album to the brilliance of 2008.
‘Starlings’ starts with bubbling electronics, short stabs of brass and strings, and one of the gentlest cocky lyrics I’ve heard: ‘How dare the premier ignore my invitations/he’ll have to go’, slowly building, in inimitable Elbow style, to a grand crescendo based around the briefly muttered phrase ‘Darling is this love?’. One of those songs that worms its way in, with perfect vignettes like ‘you are the only thing/in any room you’re ever in/I’m stubborn, selfish and too old’ that manage to say more than an entire Panic! At The Disco album, more than a Fall Out Boy song title, in just a few short lines.
I heard ‘The Bones Of You’ on Jools Holland, and it fairly exploded out of my television set, which isn’t something one expects from this lot, but hell, I wish I could have been there, feet away. The bass buzzes deep below the funky longing that Garvey wrings from the lyric. Ever subtle, the drumming propels this to tauter, leaner places than ever could have been imagined in the early days of gospel choirs and epic widescreen vistas. Here, it’s a microcosm of their sound, not the macro.
‘Mirrorball’, ‘Weather To Fly’ and ‘The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver’ are the more traditional pieces, with high, almost ethereal vocals, wispier sounds and big, slow crescendos. Whilst I love them, there’s not much to say without an intimate knowledge of key, musical notation and perfect pitch. The songs that stick more with me, the key tracks so to speak, are the more down to earth ones, a state of mind that seems to suit Guy Garvey down to, well, the ground.
‘Grounds For Divorce’ is nothing other than a rock song. Hard, swinging, angry and really, really good, it’s reminiscient of the title track from ‘Leaders….’ but far, far more focused. Seeing the energy and passion that the band puts into this when performing it translates into the psot chorus breaks – that guitar and bass line that snarls, spits and slashes at your ears is so unlike the perception I had of the band, I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. ‘An Audience With The Pope’ is a little slower, a little warmer, and possibly the loveliest long song they’ve ever written. Denying the most important appointments because ‘when she says she needs me/everything’s gonna have to wait’ speaks from the heart of every love struck man on the planet.
The most powerful tracks are, unsurprisingly, in the middle of what would be side two – you’ve been warmed up, and now here comes the punch. ‘The Fix’ contains what, I think, is the first proper guest appearance on an Elbow album (I don’t count the crowd at Glasto and the London Gospel Community Choir – after all, both are used as a kind of textural instrument)> Richard Hawley duets on a brilliantly written, wittily scored duet about fixing a horse race, that could easily be the first track to a slightly alternative Northern musical film. Story telling like this used to be the reserve of Brit-pop, and parochial rock like the Kinks before that, but the story song has been saved from the violent hands of the ghetto poets for something remarkable – swirling, psychedelic in the truest sense, and simply wonderful.
How do you follow that? Simple, really – write a song about the dead friend you dedicated the album to. For sheer heart-wrenching pain, ‘Some Riot’ doesn’t let the tension drop. Sound effects and pianos swoop in and out of the mix as we hear about the band’s friend, who ‘grows his very own brambles/twist all around him, till he can’t move/beautiful quivering chivalrous shambles/what is my friend trying to prove?’ Slowly climbing upwards, this is unsettlingly intimate, and powerful emotionally. You come out of this song, really really needing relief, enlightenment and respite. Boy, do they provide.
‘One Day Like This’, the big single, the teaser track, is the least forward looking song on here. Classic Elbow in every way, it’s unsurprisingly been unleashed first, but finds itself buried amid side two. Its lightness of touch, its inherent lovely optimism is the welcome contrast to ‘Some Riot’ – another masterstroke of album sequencing that a lot of bands wouldn’t even bother with. Neatly compartmentalising tempos and hits into easily digestible chunks doesn’t work, but making the emotional peaks and troughs fit the CD or record perfectly is something that Elbow have always done well; no differences here. The soaring strings send me back through the years, on waves of indie nostalgia.
The album closes with the faintly nice, lilting ‘Friends Of Ours’, which is like the cup of tea in the morning after the tempestuous, emotional, soul-baring night before that precedes it. It gives the album a bookended feel, a come down that meets the bubbles of ‘Starlings’ when put on loop, something the band must have thought of as I’ve done it more than enough. How can I judge something that’s become so close, so intimate? I can’t give it a nine, nor a ten, but believe me, this rating is as conservative as possible – it’s not going to influence every indie band for the next forty years, it’s not going to be put down as a pop classic, although it damn well should be.