Elbow are one of many criminally underrated groups that seem to have to wait an eternity before managing to break through into the ‘mainstream’, and their finally achieving it has reaped great rewards, not least for lead singer Guy Garvey; not just a Mercury Prize and other accolades, but his very own 6Music show were offered to him in the wake of The Seldom Seen Kid’s success.
What sets this album apart from its peers is the high quality of Garvey’s songwriting, at its best being compared elsewhere to Pink Floyd or ELO, and also (less favourably?) being compared to a middle ground between Coldplay and Radiohead. I don’t think these latter comparisons do Elbow any favours really, but in the grander moments of the album Garvey’s songcraft does indeed rise to prog-ish heights.
The iridescent Starlings leads the charge, with a distinctly shoegazing feel, all dreamy strings, sudden brass blasts and wit right from the outset:
How dare the Premier ignore my invitations?
He’ll have to go
So to the bunchy luncheons with the second on
My list of things to do
At the top you’re stopping by your place of work and
Acting like I haven’t dreamed of you and I and
Marriage in an orange grove
You are the only thing in any room you’re ever in
I’m stubborn, selfish, and too old
I do so love lyrics that read like the finest modern poetry, but with just a tad more wit. The Bones Of You then lifts the listener from their reverie gently with swaying, almost Eastern melodies, and glorious swells of backing choruses. Balanced with some moderate rocking out midway through, and thematically similar to Starlings, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d blundered into a concept album.
Mirrorball, now beloved of backing-music-for-miscellaneous-gritty-Northern-documentary makers, glitters with nocturnal longing, all sparkly strings and piano and forlorn vocals. In stark contrast, the gritty bitterness of Grounds For Divorce revels in its fat distorted guitar riff topped off with a hammering on the old ivories. It’s like a cod spaghetti Western soundtrack to a council estate vignette:
There’s this whispering of jokers doing flesh by the pound
To a chorus of supposes from the little town whores
There’ll be twisted karaoke at the Aniseed lounge
And I’ll bring you further roses
But it does you no good
Garvey laments modern times in a pin-sharp way, through the wry-est of looking glasses. Likewise, An Audience With The Pope, in a piano flourish, starts off slinkily, sounding like some kind of twisted Bond soundtrack, but disguising a witty ode to longing and waiting (‘I have an audience with the Pope/And I’m saving the world at eight/But if she says she needs me/Everybody’s gonna have to wait’ barely hiding its sarcastic teeth).
The introspective shoegazing returns with Weather To Fly, staring not this time at footwear but upwards. ‘Are we having the time of our lives?’ chimes the backing vocals throughout in this straightforward but effective wintry piece. As observations of daily life go, it’s wonderful, as is The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver, being as it is something of a curio. Desolation in the lyrics, a minute or so of slow loping downbeat dirgeing, then a sudden burst of buoyant major guitar and strings, swelling the sound for a brief moment before dropping away again; it’s quite captivating.
The legendary Richard Hawley joins Elbow for The Fix, an amusing tale of race-rigging to a bouncy fairgroundish beat:
Too many times we’ve been postally pipped
We’ve loaded the saddles
The mickeys are slipped
We’re swapping the turf for the sand
and the surf and the sin
Garvey and Hawley’s vulnerable and gravellys voices pair well together over the eerie guitar effects and almost Fun Boy Three-esque dirgey ahhhing. Social issues come to the fore again in Some Riot; Garvey’s keening plea to a wayward friend over a Spartan accompaniment:
I think when he’s drinking he’s drowning some riot
What is my friend trying to hide? Cause it’s breaking my heart
And it’s breaking my heart to pull at the rein
Brother of mine don’t run with those fuckers
When will my friends start singing again?
Contemplation aside, the much-lauded single One Day Like This deserves all the accolades it gets; the album version is an epic six and a half minutes long, resplendent in lush strings, stirring choral backing and dreamy, blinking-in-the-sunlight restorative joie de vivre so that anyone listening to it who doesn’t go away with a spring in their step really ought to exit the human race at the next stop. Friend Of Ours meanwhile lilts and sways the album to an end in a cloud of strings and piano, like a hazy last orders at the bar in the lyrics.
I never tire of listening to The Seldom Seen Kid. It’s given a much-needed breath of fresh air to the thinking man’s ‘pop’, the musicianship is second to none and Mr. Garvey is just an immensely likeable chap producing immensely likeable songs, and hopefully many more soon…