One of those bands that came in from the cold, Elbow has been playing a brilliant form of alternative rock music since 1990. They overcame the initial disappointment of being lost in a shuffle but bounced back stronger and more determined than ever to prove their melodic worth. They enjoyed a significant breakthrough with the classic album The Seldom Seen Kid and won the Brit Award in 2009 for Best British Group, a year after doing the honours at the Mercury Music Prize awards. Ivor Novello gongs followed and the key song “One Day Like This” stormed all the major end of year music magazine accolades as just about everybody’s favourite track.
Elbow is not your average band. Heavily influenced by early Genesis, Talk Talk and Radiohead, Guy Garvey and his partners Mark Potter, Craig Potter, Richard Jupp and Pete Turner pay no lip service to trend or fashion and we’re glad they don’t. The single-minded pursuit of excellence was obvious from the outset when their initial EPs and debut album Asleep in the Back indicated their singular vision. Their story is one where the good guy’s triumph over adversity and the world catches up. Hence the fact they were chosen to provide the BBC theme music for the 2012 Olympics. “First Steps” was the song that did just that, a lovely six-minute anthem featuring the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and the NovaVox gospel choir. Elbow waived their fee to the benefit of Sport Relief and Children in Need, a typically magnanimous gesture.
All of the band’s studio albums have now made the top 15 of the UK charts and seven of their singles have placed in the top 40. Now their sales have transformed Gold to Platinum (the triple kind in the case of The Seldom Seen Kid) so that even the fine compilation of B-sides, Dead in the Boot, received rave reviews. The most recent disc, The Take-Off and Landing of Everything is another world-beater, warm and packed to the gunnels with choice singing, playing and arrangements.
Guy Garvey and guitarist Mark Potter made friends at Bury College, Lancashire as teenagers with the other members joining in short order, local lads all. Determined to concentrate on lyrics and harmony the early Elbow released a succession of classy EPs – The Noisebox, The Newborn and Any Day Now, all of which were evidence of their charisma. Radio friendly in the extreme and with solid studio experience to add a technically savvy polish to whatever they essayed Elbow’s debut disc Asleep in the Back was a statement of intent, packed with Garvey’s literate and thoughtful lyrics and ensemble playing that was positively old-school – in a very good way indeed. Try the Deluxe edition where rarities from The Noisebox EP and a live version of “George Lassoes the Moon” enhance a slew of stage performances and radio sessions. Certain tracks like “Bitten by the Tailfly”, “Coming Second” and “Newborn” are redolent of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, all sweeping along with strings and horns. Anyone who wants to discover the entire Elbow experience is well advised to seek this out.
Cast of Thousands follows in 2003 after a wildly successful Glastonbury performance.
Again the press was swift in lavishing praise, quite rightly, on the main event. “Fugitive Motel”, “Grace Under Pressure” and “Ribcage” are all gems. Gospel chorale and members of the Garvey family join in on what is now viewed as a classic slab of community conscious music.
The third album Leaders of the Free World is self-produced in Salford and spawns the heavily aired title track and the epic “Forget Myself.” This time Elbow provide string arrangements while Marius de Vries (Bowie, Annie Lennox, Blow Monkeys, Coldcut, Brian Eno and U2) adds his distinctive string magic as well. By now, Elbow are also adept in the fields of video art form, working with The Soup Collective, and win praise for paying close attention to their idiosyncratic artwork. Everything is precise and thought through.
Then comes the explosion. The Seldom Seen Kid – this is where it all clicks. Released by Fiction in Europe and Geffen Records in the US the album debuted at number five and won the Mercury Prize. Entirely self-produced at Blueprint Studios this classic finds Elbow’s friend Richard Hawley adding his unmistakable sound to “The Fix”. Many of the other tracks have been used to soundbed or backdrop major TV shows and “One Day Like This” was heavily aired by the BBC to accompany footage from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The parent album has sold close to a million copies with aficionados raving about the masterful “Grounds for Divorce”, the choice strings and horns and the sheer joie de vivre and ambition of tracks like “The Bones of You” (which quotes from the standard “Summertime”) and the wit of “The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver.” The whole thing has been a vast success, then a sleeper and then re-emerged enabling it to chart across three different years.
The nostalgic reflections that invade the return to childhood roots on Build a Rocket Boys! are every bit as wondrous as the melancholia of previous discs. Garvey embarked on a kind of pilgrimage to meet Peter Gabriel at his Wiltshire home and was evidently inspired by that liaison. Elbow now enlisted the Halle Youth Choir and created a suite of grand piano stoked songs that had Garvey christened a kitchen sink poet laureate of his time. Certainly “Jesus is a Rochdale Girl” and “The Birds” have a vivid narrative but then Garvey has always been able to catch the listener unawares with a line that may seem mundane but actually speaks to the heart.
The compilation Dead in the Boot (another great title!) back-references the debut Asleep in the Back and gathers a superb collection of nocturnal laments that are far too good to be considered as filler since they are better than most others acts best shots. Again, if this has slipped you by then we’d press you to discover it and marvel at the “The Long War Shuffle” where Garvey plays fine slide guitar and early nuggets like “Lucky with Disease” and “None One”.
And so to the present: The Take-Off and Landing of Everything. A thoroughly mature and passionate affair that addresses real-life changes Elbow are once more hitting on home truths with pathos and humour. An element of the writing here reflects the fact that Garvey did his work while commuting between New York and Manchester. Subtle and poised upon fine Northern wit this is another masterpiece that was recorded at Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Box with each member tracking their own contributions in isolation – an unusual method but one that adds mystery to the results and sounds equally extraordinary when viewed on a stage. In some ways, this is a sparser disc than the others yet the songs have so much space to breathe in that the listener is reeled in with ease and soon immersed in the warmth if some wonderful music. We’re particularly liking “New York Morning” and “My Sad Captains” and boy do the melodies stick in the brain. Soulful, progressive and completely durable – this is the band at their best yet again. More power to the Elbow.
Words: Max Bell