- Mon, 2011-03-07 11:14
Regardless of what myth-making journalists may wish you to believe, the success that Elbow found with The Seldom Seen Kid was neither sudden nor unexpected. They have spent well over a decade crafting finely detailed, atypical musical landscapes that embody and magnify the poetic lyrics of frontman Guy Garvey. It is a skill that has seen them lauded as one of the most intelligent and interesting bands that Britain has to offer, and their transformation from cult heroes to national favourites has long seemed a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’.
Although that long-awaited transformation has now taken place, the band have not allowed their improvement in fortune to affect their approach to song-writing, with the one exception of Garvey. Where once he explored the more tumultuous aspects of his day to day life, the contentment that success has bestowed upon him combined with his recent move back to the suburb of Manchester in which he grew up has led him to look backwards, and to reflect upon youth; its highs and lows, and its passing. The result is an album whose tone is given far more to quiet, considered reflection than its predecessors. Its tread is softer, its voice less quick to rise and its declarations more studied and less prone to the ornate.
Not that Elbow are subdued throughout. Eight minute opener The Birds finds its softly mechanical clatter and whirr interrupted by chiming bursts of melody, signalling its slow but tangibly deliberate ascent to a climax of languorously swooping strings, Garvey’s intimate murmur replaced by powerful, drawn-out cries. So too the rumbling Neat Little Rows; prickly and pugnacious in its verse, it bursts into a pounding, jubilant chorus, while Open Arms centres around Garvey and the Halle Youth Choir belting out an anthemic hook similar in its celebratory tone to One Day Like This.
With Love, High Ideals and Dear Friends are less boisterous, but still move with pace. The first two each present a single, strong melody-line dancing over taut rhythms, With Love revelling in boozy mischief (“a bacchian scandal awaits me, just can’t do it alone. Your sweetheart probably hates me, but I’ll send you home your dome filled up with love.”) while High Ideals is a predominantly instrumental affair, a brief stretch of storytelling sandwiched between two passages of playful call-and-response from strings, trumpets and guitars. Dear Friends is immediately more wistful with its strummed acoustic guitars, swelling ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ and a lilting croon from Garvey.
The remainder of the album sees Elbow at their most stripped-back to date. The Night Will Always Win and The River only provide the most minimal of embellishment to the core combination of piano and vocal, The Birds (Reprise) features nothing but the Halle Youth Choir and the amateur vocals of octogenarian John Mosely (the song is perhaps a tad too sentimental in tone), and Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl is gorgeously understated with its simple acoustic guitar and stuttering piano figures. It is Lippy Kids that best communicates Garvey’s frame of mind though, his ode to youth borne along on a gentle flow of humming voices and serene strings, and interspersed with a whistled melody both nostalgic and contented, tugging at the heart with an inward smile.
The bulk of Build A Rocket Boys! may not have the same explosive immediacy as its predecessors, but it doesn’t suffer for it. Elbow’s musical blueprint is still firmly in place; Garvey remains the eloquent centre of attention, his bandmates illustrating his words with ingeniously constructed and evocative soundtracks that avoid the obvious. That they have turned their attention to more sedate subject matter makes for a largely calmer collection of songs, but one that remains as engrossing and rewarding as ever.