A day with more Elbow is a good day
It would be no small claim for me to describe myself as an Elbow fan. Their wonderful mix of subtly progressive rock with strong pop sensibilities that could hook someone in immediately, yet still have plenty of hidden joys worth many repeated listens. At the centre of the group is Guy Garvey, whose vocals are invitingly warm and have a surprisingly large range. His lovely (and occasionally cheeky) lyrics are wonderfully poetic, but direct and down-to-earth enough that nearly anyone can understand and even connect to them almost instantly.
20 years on from their debut, Asleep in the Back, Elbow are releasing their 9th studio album and 3rd without a regular drummer, Flying Dream 1. There's a real sense of nostalgia and of "looking-back" to this album. You can see this from the album title itself which calls back to Flying Dream 143 from Casts of Thousands, as well as a track sharing the title of their 4th record, The Seldom Seen Kid.
This could well be due to Covid, many people certainly prefer the times before it hit. It's hard to ignore and this time it certainly impacted how the group wrote and recorded this project, as the instrumental members would write as much as they could remotely, send what they had to Garvey to add his lyrics and melodies. Later they all came together at the Brighton Theatre Royal to "perfect, perform, and record the songs."
The title track opens the record with Garvey reminiscing about family life when he was still a child. Describing a warm scene before the fun of the flying takes him away:
"Dead of the night when the prayer group was gone
Mum and my sisters all blissful and feathered
Candle wick swaddled my golden wee brother
Dad's across town tonight fixing the mirror
Shaking his head at a richer man's grammar"
While The Seldom Seen Kid, just like the '08 album, references Bryan Glancy, a friend of the band's who sadly passed shortly after the release of their 3rd record. The song plays out a What If? scenario told explicitly from Garvey's point of view to his wife about what might have happened had she met Glancy:
"And babe, if you'd met him
I picture you'd sit
Blasting my wisdom
With two-barrelled wit
Then he'd steal you for dancing
And you'd lend him your arms
And I'd stooge for your laughing
And you'd twirl in the chaos of charm"
That sense of nostalgia comes across in the music too as this is a far more subdued record for Elbow than usual. This isn't to say they are some heavy metal group or even that the arena rock they do occasionally include is their main focus, rather the group are still experimenting with what it means to release music as Elbow.
It does have a contender in the equally understated Little Fictions from 2017, however much of the softness there comes from the lack of any regular backing instruments and is mostly just the band itself. This record was a little disappointing though, due to some of production choices that led the guitars, keys and percussion all sounding a little over-polished.
This time though, the group made the unusual decision to mostly ignore the obvious strings and horns parts of the orchestra, that they themselves are accustomed to using, and instead mostly rely on woodwinds and choral vocals to back them. The best example of this is probably on The Seldom Seen Kid and its heavy use of twin clarinets rather than the instruments of any band member as its core, only sparingly using in piano and guitars in its latter half.
On top of that, a number of the tracks include quirky additions like the powerful backing vocals on After the Eclipse, or the cymbal wash on Is It a Bird, or the melodic percussion on Calm and Happy as well as the bluesy guitar in its second half.
Which actually makes me think of their b-sides compilation, Dead in the Boot. This collected a handful of the band's more peculiar and nocturnal non-album tracks, from 2000 to 2011. Songs that would have been just a little too weird or too melancholic or downtrodden to fit onto an album properly. Flying Dream 1 is a lot more coherent and hopeful though.
Six Words is a wonderful encapsulation of much of what the band has become so great at, in this case incredibly cheesy love songs, that just manage to toe the dangerous line of becoming too sappy. Spending almost 2 of its 5 minutes on just a simple but beautiful keyboard arpeggio running up and down, sometimes speeding up only to quickly slow down again. This is paired with Garvey's vocals as he so effortlessly captures the fluttering nervousness of first announcing your love as well as the silly triumph of receiving them in return:
"I'm falling in love with you
Six words released like birds
Into the brightening ether
And, oh, to read those words returned
I'm fuzzy, I've stumbled onto
Some heavenly escalator"
At this point everyone else joins in, bass, guitar, drums, some extra percussion and backing vocals all jubilant and heart warming. This continues for the rest of the track, repetitive yes, but only to truly press upon the listener just how amazing it is to be in love, singing:
"You bring my hands to my heart
You fling all my plans to the wind
You wrote me a better part
Just in time to wind the clocks to the start
I'm part of everything again
Look who loves me
Look who loves me, I know
I know the view from up on top of the world
Now I know your songbird soul"
All of this comes together as Elbow's most patient record. A project that requests, rather than requires, multiple listens. It's an album whose standout moments don't even stand out on your first play through, but once you connect to them you wonder how you ever didn't in the first place.
Favourites: Flying Dream 1; Six Words; Come On, Blue; The Only Road; The Seldom Seen Kid; What Am I Without You
Least Favs: Calm and Happy