It takes patience and memory to follow Elbow. The group first got together in 1990, but didn’t realize an album until 2001’s Asleep in the Back. The album received a Mercury Music Prize nomination, but the band would have to wait most of the decade before actually winning, for 2008’s Seldom Seen Kid. It took three years for the follow-up album, Build a Rocket Boys!, to be released. The music itself is unhurried and reflective and looks back not to its award-winning double-platinum predecessor, but to those early years.
Opener “The Birds” encapsulates the Elbow story, which is less about the force of a rocket and more about the precision in their construction. The song begins with just a bit of drive, but mostly works to open up space (particularly in the sound of the drums). The multi-tracked vocals add an ethereal quality that doesn’t let the guitar get traction. It’s an enticing start, but the payoff doesn’t come until four minutes in, after a number of pieces have been put in, taken out, and rearranged. The pinging synth line turns the energy just kinetic enough to make groove go from steady to insisting.
The song suggests that “looking back is for the birds”, but much of the rest of the album provides a more ambivalent take on nostalgia. In fact, the childhood reflections here don’t quite turn nostalgic, yet there’s not a resistant bitterness, either. “Jesus Is a Rochdale Girl” captures the attitude with a quick description: “nothing to be proud of and nothing to regret”.
“Lippy Kids”, which provides the line that became the album’s title, does the looking back in a way that centers the album’s thinking. Guy Garvey’s vocal stays steady, and as he calls for the boys to build a rocket, he never voices the exclamation that’s perpetually restrained. Adolescence is a mix of booze and stealing and kissing and while it amounts to something, 20 years of time shows both that much of it is affect and that maybe that affect is worth adopting, “simian stroll” or not. Garvey has a certain amount of ambivalence toward his adolescence, but wishes the best (and the best of self-awareness) for the gaggle of kids he sees navigating it now.
With lyrics carefully placed and considered, Elbow manages to approach the sentimental without going too far. The band knows it’s better to have a quick nip and be on your way than it is to reside at the end of the bar, drinking your way into memory. That’s not to say the band is filled with masters of cold precision. Instead, it means that when they reach for the anthemic (as in the oddly morbid but big-chorused “Neat Little Rows”), it works because it’s born out of structure and understanding, but unafraid of its own release.
It also means that the fully exposed moments – reminiscent of the singalong from “Grace Under Pressure” on Cast of Thousands – are believable and effective. “Open Arms” could be a disaster. The chorus’s build and melody are fit for big, lighter-waving crowds (lighters seem more fitting for Elbow than the more typical cell phones). The lyric “We got open arms for broken hearts” works because it grows out of the specificity of the rest of the song. The call “to come home again” responds to the album’s earlier concern from “Lippy Kids” that “nobody knows me at home anymore”, simultaneously answering with hurt even while singing about responding to broken hearts.
Details make Build a Rocket Boys! warrant repeat listenings, requiring that you pay attention and remember what you experience. Elbow certainly doesn’t call your attention to them, allowing you to slip between the minimal sounds and expansive production. You’ll find them soon enough, though, as long as you let yourself be a little patient.