Elbow 's Latest Joint Shows Much Flexibility
Written: Jul 30, 2008 (Updated Jul 31, 2008)
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Pros:Disarming, emotional lyrics, a knack for rhythmic grooves, and lavish attention to musical detail.
Cons:Mid-section drags a bit, culminating in the overbearing "Tower Crane Driver" song.
The Bottom Line: Cathartic, ominous, and thrillingly romantic. The Seldom Seen Kid is becoming one of my most often played CDs.
Here's a statement that oughta p!ss off fans of two completely different bands simultaneously:
"Elbow is the thinking man's Coldplay."
Now I didn't make up that statement, mind you. But it was one of the first things that I read about Elbow when I first decided to investigate their music. Taken superficially, I can sort of see how one might make such a comparison. Both bands are British. Both bands have a knack for creating engrossingly melodic, fragile Britpop songs that slowly burn their way into a listener's memory. Both have singers who can do a pretty sweet falsetto. But the comparison breaks down not too much further after that. And it's kind of an insulting thing to say, considering that it can be interpreted to mean any of the following things:
1) Coldplay's music is thoughtless.
2) Coldplay's fans are unintelligent.
3) Elbow's music is a stone's throw away from the music of a band accused of being not terribly thoughtful, just with slightly more intelligent minds involved in the creative process.
I think the existence of Coldplay's most recent album nicely refutes statements 1 and 2, and you can go read my review of Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends to see why that is. As for Elbow, a band who I discovered only a few months before Coldplay went and reinvented themselves, their music possesses a certain sense of weight and theatrics that Coldplay's usually more mainstream approach doesn't really capture. The dudes in Elbow are also capable of coming up with some pretty solid grooves - they know how to work the low end (meaning a noticeable presence of bass and drums) into even some of their most delicate songs. On top of all that, the vocals should lay any easy comparisons to rest. Guy Garvey's robust voice is much more full-bodied, resembling Peter Gabriel with a tiny bit of the wide-eyed smoothness of Ron Sexsmith. And while I've pretty much always had a positive opinion of Chris Martin and his bandmates, it's always nice to find out that another band accused of sounding like them is really quite different once you get beneath the surface.
Elbow also shows a bit of a restless desire for tinkering with their sound. Having only been exposed to their latest two albums, 2005's Leaders of the Free World and 2008's The Seldom Seen Kid (the latter being the one I'm covering today), I can already see a bit of stylistic morphing between the two albums, with the common thread being that these guys only do a handful of out-and-out "rockers" compared to what you might expect from a "rock band". They're not Radiohead and they're not Genesis, and I wouldn't really classify them as "prog rock" for the most part, so try to get those obvious comparisons out of your head. But they have a knack for taking the ingredients of a common rock song, stripping the layers back to the delicate, bare-bones structure behind the song, and then overlaying whatever instruments seem to fit the mood in whatever order they please. So you might get lovey-dovey ballads that start with the drums and work their way up, or a stomping rocker that builds off of the acoustic guitar, or more experimental pieces constructed around a piano or organ. The ingredients change from song to song, and while not every experiment works, pretty much all of them have several delicious components.
And then there's the lyrics. Elbow's the type of band that doesn't seem to pull their punches when it comes to mining the depths of romantic euphoria or dark despair. You'll hear both on this record (quite a bit of the former, actually), as well as a few offshoots into more cerebral territory that's not as easy to tie a specific emotion to. Guy Garvey doesn't settle for a plainspoken description when a bit of hyperbole seems to suit his mood better - his words and the tone of voice with which he sings them tend to run the gamut between, "So head-over-heels in love I could just die" to "So embarrassed I could just die" to "So down in the dumps I could just die." Death is alluded to, if not overtly mentioned, here and there throughout the album - its very title is actually a reference to a friend who passed away in 2006, to whom the album's memory is dedicated. So you can hear a sense of mourning in a few of the songs that attempt to confront the loss head-on, but there's more than enough mood-lightening material to keep the album from getting too insular and too weighty to listen all the way through. Really, if it wasn't for a few missteps that cause the album's middle section to sag a bit, The Seldom Seen Kid would be a five-star record. As it is, I'll settle for handing it a grade on the higher end of four stars, with the caveat that it's gonna take some getting used to, probably even for existing fans of the band.
I sat you down and told you how
The truest love that's ever found is for oneself
You pulled apart my theory
With a weary and disinterested sigh...
Watch that first track - it's a doozy. Elbow starts off with exactly the kind of song you would expect not to work in the opening slot - abstract, spacious, and highly experimental. The melodic sound that underpins most of it is difficult to identify - some sort of watery keyboard loop that keeps repeating, playing the same two chords in digitized waves, which gives the track a vaguely Caribbean feel, but also brings to mind the glistening stars in a clear night sky. And then you get these sudden, majestic, loud-as-hell bursts of trumpets and drum rolls, light a sudden burst of blinding light from a UFO positioned directly overhead, that turn off and give way to the eerie darkness as quickly as they appeared. Guy Garvey's vocal melodies wind their way around within, bringing a human touch to this otherworldly composition, offering his poetic take on what it feels like to fall in love with a woman who he considers to be so way out of his league that she may as well be from another planet. Not that he actually describes her in alien terms - but he's clearly transfixed to the point where her very entrance into the room is like a celestial event. I love the way that the music starts to get busier and "gushier" as his passionate string of lyrics builds to a climax during the bridge. At exactly the moment where you expect one more of those celestial blasts, his voice and the music fall away in reverence, as if unable to look upon her beauty, and then... KA-BLAM! The expected payoff arrives, mere seconds later than expected, but the beat in between makes all the difference in the world. This is an unbelievably beautiful song, in case I hadn't already made that point crystal clear.
The Bones of You
Do I have time? A man of my caliber?
Stood in the street like a sleepwalking teenager?
And I dealt with this years ago
I took a hammer to every memento...
The last wanderings of "Starlings" cut off abruptly, segueing into the rich acoustic strum in 6/8 that characterizes this song - there's a slightly Latin feel to it, but I can't quite place it. Garvey's lyrics are almost impenetrable, perhaps describing the fear of being separated from her, but also assuring her that he's so transfixed, he couldn't leave her if he tried. That's my best guess, but the meaning seems secondary to the way that these complicated words roll off of his tongue, once again adding melodic complexity to a fairly simple chord progression, and culminating in a chorus which enigmatically declares, "And I'm five years ago and three thousand miles away." The percussion and fuzzy bass give a good idea of the type of "weight" I spoke of earlier, which seems to underpin most of Elbow's up-tempo material, but there's still something mysteriously restrained here, that keeps this track from being a bona fide rocker. I like it well enough, but it seems a bit more like a transitional piece between two major highlights, rather than a highlight in itself. The faint echo of a George Gershwin tune that plays in the gap between tracks 2 and 3 is kind of a momentum killer this early in the album, too, so that drags down my opinion of this track ever so slightly.
We took the town to town last night
We kissed like we invented it
And now I know what every step is for
To lead me to your door...
A slow-burning ballad based on a light groove of drums and piano might be an extremely risky proposition when we're only at track three, but give this one the time to sink in, and I promise it will absolutely slay you with its devastatingly gorgeous cadences. It's got a shimmering quality that envelops the entire song, thanks to the twin attack of lightly picked guitar and ringing piano that make up the song's main melodic hook, circling about time and time again, depicting a sense of bewildered awe. Richard Jupp's deep but delicate "thump-click-thump-click" rhythm provides the "groove" aspect of the song, making it a wonderful contrast of gravity and weightlessness. Garvey's words here depict the epitome of sad-sack romance, keeping a hushed sense of awe in his voice as he speaks of thrilling nights out on the town, and kisses that end all kisses, and the thrill of constancy - the peace of sleeping beside this person he can't live without, day in and day out. He feels like a total loser, yet somehow he managed to stumble upon the completeness he was so desperately seeking when he found the person he's singing to.This is not a "torrid love affair" song - its romantic devotion runs much deeper than that, and it feels like the kind of sentiment that can only be realized through the kind of relationship that gets to the point of feeling like you've known a person forever. This is where the fire cools off for a lot of people, but he sells it like it's just the beginning of an epic adventure - one that involves putting babies to sleep and walking familiar city streets every weekend, and it carries a true sense of commitment to it if you read between the lines. All it takes for this one to completely send me over the edge into emotional bliss is for Craig Potter to work in a lighter-than-air piano solo during the song's bridge. That and the overlapping vocals repeating "So lift off love" and "Down to you, dear" at the end are enough to polish it off with an extraordinary amount of finesse.
Grounds for Divorce
There's this whispering of jokers doing flesh by the pound
To a chorus of supposers from the little town halls
There'll be twisted karaoke at the Aniseed Lounge
And I'll bring you further roses, but it does you no good...
And now we shift gears completely, from domestic bliss to marital unrest - but that isn't really the focus of the song, just the starting point. If acoustic guitars could "grind", that's what they'd be doing at the beginning of this song, and they're soon followed by an absolutely mean slamming beat that gives the song a furious "Working on the railroad and really hating my job!" sort of feel, which of course would explain why it's all about finding solace in your favorite watering hole at the end of the day, even though you know you're gonna pay for it dearly when the wife finds you stumbling in drunk at 2 A.M. It's a seething but spirited song, paying tribute to "the seldom seen kid" with each glass downed, whom we will learn more about later in the album. Though it's the polar opposite of the songs that surround it, I'm totally thrilled by Mark Potter's snarling electric guitar riffs, the echoing "whoa"s, and the fact that Guy Garvey can't simply say "bar" or "pub", he's gotta go the roundabout way and say, "There's a hole in my neighborhood down which of late I cannot help but fall." I'm rather impressed by his ability to paint a picture with metaphors and adjectives, and to let our brains fill in the actual nouns being described.
An Audience with the Pope
Good God, I'm easily bruised
But so often a moth to her flame.
And the things that she's asked me to do
Would see a senior saint forgetting his name...
Here's one point where Elbow might get a little too precious for their own good. The intentions are admirable here - Garvey's trying to assure us in no uncertain terms that a woman is #1 on his priority list, so he assures us that even if he were a world leader on the brink of a summit that would achieve world piece, he'd still choose to stiff the Pope himself if he knew his woman needed him. It's cute in an "Aw, shucks" sort of way, and kind of amusing (though perhaps slightly blasphemous) how he uses the phrases "Sweet Jesus" and "Good God" to describe how taken he is with her. But the music - which is some sort of eerie, piano-driven, tango, seems to limp along and never really find a satisfying groove. It's got an interesting mystique at the beginning, but it doesn't evolve enough to remain interesting all the way through, save for the strangely gritty guitar solo in the middle.
Weather to Fly
Pounding the streets where my father's feet still ring from the walls
We'd sing in the doorways, or just bicker and row
Just figuring how we are wired inside...
This one's the second experiment that only sort of works - once again, quite well-intentioned with its heart-rendingly beautiful chorus, which shows up right away, as Guy Garvey sings in falsetto, his voice distance, obscured by a cloudy haze, and loops through the background of pretty much the entire song. "Looping" is a good way to describe the song as whole - the verses have a melody that is intentionally designed to make each verse circle right back to the starting point where the next one can pick up almost immediately, with the phrase "Perfect weather to fly" bridging each of them. Some stately horns show up later, just to add a hint of royalty to this strange aural balloon ride, but much like "An Audience with the Pope", it makes the mistake of never truly building on its somewhat plodding groove. It's got a fine ending and beginning, but there needs to be something more that changes it up in the middle, making the final few choruses something that we anticipate rather than something that makes us wonder if the band ran out of ideas for how to finish a half-baked composition.
The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver
I must have been working the ropes
When your hand slipped from mine
Now I live off the mirrors and smoke
It's a joke, a fix, a lie...
Speaking of half-baked compositions... this one definitely could have used a few more minutes in the old oven before being served to the world at large. It's a slow, ponderous overreaching allegory about - you guessed it - a tower crane driver, a lonely man who spends his entire day in his tiny little cab, looking down on the rest of the world. The rhythm and melody are like an awkward circus in slow motion, with clumsy percussion and blurting tubas and so forth - it definitely instills the fear of heights in the listener, but the song makes the mistake of being too fragmented, wandering off into quiet little guitar interludes that go nowhere, and stretching out for far too long. You can hear the desperation in Garvey's sullen vocals, but this just feels like too much of a roundabout way for the band to tell us, "Gee, it's lonely at the top".
The redoubtable beast has had Pegasus pills
We'll buy him the patch in the Tuscany hills
And the Vino de Vici will flow like a river in spring...
The band dons their shades and ups the cool factor about ten times for this trippy, mystifying, and yet playful number that seems to be all about beating the odds. It's subtle - filled with eerie layers of electric guitar and organ and an almost tribal 6/8 beat, but it's not quite rock, not fast enough to be swing, and not brassy or free-form enough to be jazz. Whatever it is, it's badass. It's also a duet. And if you don't think a duet between two male singers could ever fit the definition of "badass", then I guess you've never met Richard Hawley. Truth be told, neither have I. I hadn't even heard of the British singer/songwriter before, nor did I even realize there was a second voice at first - he's got a sly smoothness to him that sounds close enough to something Guy Garvey could emulate that it took a few spins to realize they were trading off lines during each verse and teaming up for the chorus. They make a hell of a team, though, using rhymes that border on Lewis Carroll-esque nonsense to describe what sounds like a get-rich-scheme that involves fixing a horse race in Monte Carlo. Seriously, sign this one up for the soundtrack to Ocean's Fourteen. Because if I ever decided to plan a casino heist, this song would totally be playing in my getaway car.
A friend of mine grows his very own brambles
They twist all around him 'til he can't move
Beautiful, quivering, chivalrous shambles
What is my friend trying to prove?
Three songs in a row in 6/8 is probably another risky proposition for the band - especially with this one being rather slow and ponderous, it runs the risk of being confused with "Tower Crane Driver", and that doesn't do it any favors. Consequently, it's the song on the album that took me the longest to appreciate. But I really enjoy it now. It is an utterly confining, stuffy, wobbly piece of music - once again I'm given the mental image of a circus, this time around focusing on the high-wire act, as a guy desperately tries to keep his pole balanced for fear of the fall that awaits him. But there's no safety net - not even a floor. Just an empty abyss, an eternity to ponder one's split-second failure. There's no discernible percussion in this song - just an uneasy dance of piano, creepy bass notes that get dragged up and down the scale just to make the song feel that much more woozy, and a hell of a lot of reverb. It's a vulnerable cry from the depths of despair, as Garvey describes a close friend who somehow became withdrawn, punishing himself needlessly, pulling away from people, who wanted to help him, joining up with a group of unsavory blokes who only proceeded to make him feel worse about himself. Guy's words are delicate and sympathetic towards his friend (the moment of raw clarity when he sings "It's breaking my heart" is enough to break all of ours), but incredibly harsh towards his friend's new posse ("Brother of mine, don't run with those f*ckers.") And at the end, Guy poses the uneasy question: "When will my friend start singing again?", and this is the point where the acrobat makes a false move and tumbles into the abyss, with Guy's pained voice echoing into the dark well after his lost brother. It's devastating, and the song's ability to devastate by the mere sound of its instruments, to carry so much weight without striking a single drum, is what makes it a striking work of art.
One Day Like This
Someone tell me how I feel
It's silly wrong, but vivid right
Kiss me like a final meal
Kiss me like we die tonight...
Well, after that last track, we needed something uplifting. Fortunately, Elbow seems to believe in a dawn following the darkness, and this song is as bright and optimistic a sunrise as any, with the single bright piano chord and sympathetic swelling of strings cluing us into its sunnier disposition right away. This would be the "big pop single" from the album (though at six minutes plus, I'm sure it must have been edited for radio), and despite how inappropriate this might feel after the mourning of the previous song, I think its position on the album is what causes it to hit me as hard as it does. It reads like the apology of a man who has been brought back from the brink of insanity at the last second, who has been given a new lease on life and is absolutely flabbergasted by how close he came to destroying th lives of the people he loves most deeply. The staccato strings leading us into the chorus subtly change the mood from pensive to triumphant as Guy declares, "It's looking like a beautiful day", and it feels like he's falling in love all over again as he declares to the woman he almost left behind, "Holy cow, I love your eyes! And only now I see the light!" (Though it does seem a bit weird to use the phrase "Holy cow" in a love song. Calling your woman a cow might not be the smartest move. Then again, I'm only assuming this is a declaration of romantic love. For all I know, it could be documenting a man's conversion to Hinduism.) All of these ingredients, combined with a vamp that urges us to "Throw those curtains wide", creates a vibrant Britpop anthem that makes Coldplay's "Everything's Not Lost" sound absolutely morose by comparison.
Friend of Ours
Salford Skyline Blue
Could fly around any corner
'Til you do...
You'd almost expect "One Day Like This" to be the perfect high note for Elbow to go out on, so why are they still hanging around for this languid, hushed encore? I think the answer has to do with closure. "One Day Like This" might be a declaration of getting over the untimely loss of a friend, and being rescued from a similar downward spiral. But this song, with its lone electric guitar, reverent strings, and occasional trickles of piano, seems to serve as a eulogy for the band's departed friend. It's played rather sparsely - at times you can faintly hear Pete Turner's bass keeping the rhythm when all of the other instruments are at rest. And musically speaking, it's not one of the more vibrant and exciting pieces on the album. But there's a lot of power even in a single whisper on this one, especially as Garvey says farewell with a simple, barely audible, "Love you mate".
The Seldom Seen Kid is quite a powerful album when you really take the time to delve into the details. There's so much sonic richness to it that it's impossible to appreciate it all the first time around. If you took out "Tower Crane Driver" and put in something that contributed to the flow of the album a bit better (and perhaps tweaked "An Audience with the Pope" and "Weather to Fly" by adding some sort of a bridge or something), this would be a near-perfect album. But it's still one that I'll happily recommended for the disarming number of strong performances that open and close the record. Take into account the fact that this band recorded, mixed, and produced this album with almost no outside help, and I think it proves that these guys have a pretty high artistic bar set for themselves. In my mind, that can only spell good things in their future. And I personally can't wait to hear what sort of musical concoctions they come up with next.
The Bones of You $1
Grounds for Divorce $2
An Audience with the Pope $.50
Weather to Fly $1
The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver $0
The Fix $2
Some Riot $1.50
One Day Like This $2
Friend of Ours $1
Guy Garvey: Lead vocals, guitars
Mark Potter: Lead guitar, backing vocals
Craig Potter: Keyboards, organ, backing vocals
Richard Jupp: Drums
Pete Turner: Bass