Four albums in seven years is not a bad rate, really, for a band with so much going sonically. Crafting the incredible details that you pick up when giving these albums a good going over in a dark room with a big set of headphones must have been insanely hard work, and the sheer amount of instruments, bleeps, voices, strings and gospel choirs that round out the core prog-style line up (think classic rock, think guitar/bass/drums/singer/keyboards, think Yes, then strip away the wank) would overwhelm if it wasn’t for the quality of the songs themselves.
And what songs. Detailed vignettes of local life (‘Station Approach’), broken loves (‘Grounds For Divorce’), drugs and drink (‘Red’,’ Some Riot’) and truly uplifting moments of yearning (‘Grace Under Pressure’, ‘Forget Myself’); this is their secret. Keeping it simple, the band show how strong the lyrics and melodies are. When Guy Garvey sings the heart-breaking ‘Puncture Repair’, or ‘The Fix’ riffs on proper story-telling song-writing, the sounds behind don’t really matter. What comes across, especially with the two later albums, is the power of both Garvey’s voice, and his words.
That’s the main difference – crispness. The first album, Asleep in the Back, is a dark, murky, dense, detailed album, but the vocals and instruments all meld into a big, sonic custard: warm, enveloping but somehow slightly sinister. There are long, slow build-ups, and Garvey’s voice seems to float along in a haze, mirrored by Craig Potter’s organs. Those keyboards are more keyboard like as the band started off, and provide drones, washes, and tones. It’s like moving from Impressionism to Pointillism: as the band moved from broad strokes of sound and big pictures, where one couldn’t see for the blur, they slowly sharpened up the edges, until, by The Seldom Seen Kid, everything is a lot clearer close up. Step back, and you have the consistent Elbow sound – just now, you can hear the joins.
The journey in between, though, is the fascinating part. Listening to Cast of Thousands straight after Asleep in the Back is quite a shock to the system: already, the band aren’t multitracking their own vocals quite so much, but the London Community Gospel Choir did it for them. Better equipment, surely, and more time and money to record, but also, the freedom to experiment and the indulgence in which to do so produced some of my favourite Elbow tunes. ‘Ribcage’ and ‘Fugitive Motel’ both benefit from cleaner sounding dynamics, where the hooks and the pay-off lines can really shine through.
Cast of Thousands develops the side of British indie music that doesn’t always get seen – the funkiness of the drum patterns. While ‘Coming Second’ on the debut has some groove, songs like ‘Snooks (Progress Report)’ show off the rhythm section of Peter Turner and Richard Jupp to better effect than the keyboard laden murk of their first record. Also, it’s on Cast of Thousands that you start to hear more from guitarist Mark Potter. Slides, little riffs, chunks of distorted noise, all recognisably guitar-like, too, add to that detail, that slightly sparer sounding detail.
Sonically, of course, the showpiece is ‘Grace Under Pressure’, with all of Glastonbury behind them, but ‘Not A Job’ is the best example of the progression – while having roughly all the elements of the sound of Asleep In The Back, it sounds like a progression, like a more mature piece of work, and sums up Cast of Thousands perfectly – the debut, but better, and emotionally, their most consistent disc.
On their third disc, Leaders of the Free World, I’ll readily admit, Elbow completely slipped off my radar – in my defence, I was heavily into the joys of jazz, and knitting my brows intellectually at men in suits with trumpets. Looking back on it through the lens of The Seldom Seen Kid, knowing where it would lead, as well as where it was coming from, it felt like Darwin must have felt when setting foot in the Galapagos Islands – the discovery of evolution was upon me. Tightening the sound further, squeezing more jerk and less squelch into the assault upon my ears, and coming out with some serious political bile, mainly on the title track, Elbow gave me something to think about when I got this going on the headphones.
It’s an album with split personality syndrome, though – half the time, it’s angry political comment, and the other half, a love letter to Manchester. Kicking off with ‘Picky Bugger’, a paean to Piccadilly, and continuing with ‘Forget Myself’, I’m not sure whether the city is the metaphor for his girl, or love is the metaphor for getting back home to the North-West, but either way, these two pack a bloody good punch for an opening pair. The long, meandering, angry title track, and ‘Mexican Standoff’, show off the guitar work of Potter more and more than his brother’s keyboards. As the band has grown, it seems that the keyboards have become more sophisticated, and thus less recognisable as such. Still, the nasty little guitar riff on ‘Mexican Standoff’ certainly excited my inner metalhead.
This leave us with their latest piece, the gorgeous, divine, Mercury Prize winning Seldom Seen Kid. I’ve reviewed this in detail here, but in context, it’s yet more of the same – progression from texture to song, and from dark to light. Only ‘Some Riot’ really depresses, for even ‘Grounds for Divorce’, sonically, bursts out defiantly, as opposed to resigning Garvey to his fate. The two central ballads, ‘Weather to Fly’ and ‘The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver’, are highlights of Elbows long and deep tradition of slow love songs – sheer loveliness in sound, without doubt. Rounding off the variety with ‘The Fix’, a duet about messing around at the races, and you’ve got Elbow’s most accomplished song-writing effort to date. The best bit? You can hear the words.
Ratings and key tracks:
Asleep in the Back – 6/10 – Red, Newborn, Coming Second
Cast of Thousands – 8/10 – Ribcage, Not a Job, Grace Under Pressure
Leaders of the Free World – 7/10 – Picky Bugger, Leaders of the Free World, Mexican Standoff
The Seldom Seen Kid – 8/10 – Grounds For Divorce, Weather To Fly, Some Riot