There really should be some sort of an embargo on any descriptions of Elbow that narrowly refers to them as glum Northern blokes who sing miserable songs for rainy days. Because, although nobody does songs for rainy days better, they’re a million miles away from the crowd of post-Radiohead Brit-rock balladeers they used to get lumped in with. The same thing goes for any of the daft comparisons to Coldplay, for Elbow are an older, funnier and far better band. They have the experience of a thousand last drinks and last goodbyes to lend weight to their intimate tales of sadness, absurdity and light. Whereas Chris Martin’s big-themed, universally dull lyrics look like they’ve just come from a 6th form poetry contest or a corporate board meeting (nothing too specific or personal and designed for mass appeal), Elbow’s Guy Garvey writes stark, poetic songs that are touching, funny and real.
Leaders of the Free World was recorded in the band’s home city of Manchester in their own space, without the tensions that made the sessions for their second album, Cast Of Thousands, so troubled. What could have been a precursor to hitting a stress free comfortable groove however, seems to have had the opposite effect, pushing the band into delivering their finest set of songs to date. If a little of the group’s experimental flair has been curbed, they have injected a new classicism to their music. As a result, a song like “My Very Best” goes beyond being a mere indie-rock ballad and sounds like a truly great, tragic love song, drawing more comparisons with later period Nick Cave than it does the music of their peers. “An Imagined Affair” too, sees a shattering lyric wrapped around a subtle melody, as Garvey scratches at some idea of romance, only to wake up staring bleary eyed at the bar and facing the reality of the dawn, “But all this an imagined affair/ While sitting in a bar, spilling in a bar”.
“Station Approach” describes the train journey in to Manchester and the instant familiarity all of us feel with the place we call home; building from a picked guitar and shimmering piano chords, to exultant harmonies, before the song explodes into colour. It’s the first track on the album and would surely be the highlight were it not for the stunning “Great Expectations”, a song that stops you in you tracks and hits you right in the gut. It’s a sorrowful, tingling love song, soaked in loss and longing, and flecked with the earliest memories of a cherished affair. Garvey singing with a cigarette-cracked voice, about a couple waltzing down the aisle of the last bus and being serenaded by chanting football supporters. This time the affair is not imagined, but something real and on fire against the mundane backdrop and grey rain of the city. It challenges “Newborn” for the title of Elbow’s finest moment to date – it’s honestly that good.
And Elbow don’t just sing the blues either, for, as anybody who has seen the band play live will testify, Guy Garvey is one funny fucker. Like a less maudlin Morrissey, Garvey is half resigned and half cutting as he sings, “Your sweet reassurances don’t change the fact/ That he’s better looking than me”, in the Latin stomp of “Mexican Standoff”. The suspicious, twitching feeling of meeting your partner’s ex, is perfectly set to the sound of a jittering spaghetti western shoot out. “Forget Myself” paints a glorious picture of the fucked up Friday night opera of beer and mating rituals you will find in any city you could care to mention, and is Elbow’s best single to date. Thematically, the album’s title track is a slightly at odds with anything else here, but it’s nonetheless a fervent attack on Bush-era politics, “feckless sons” and “The Commander in Chief”. It lacks the creeping panic of the similarly themed “Snowball” (a song not included on the album), but it is still a cluttering wake up call.
Over the course of three bruised, brilliant albums, Elbow have quietly become one of the best bands in Britain. They are there for the times when we drink too much, come in too late and need a band to hold onto. We believe their tales of staggering nights out and ordinary heartbreak because we believe they’ve been there, and still feel the same things we do. It’s music that makes sense of the times you’re in the pubs and clubs in town, watching the room spin round and the couples pair off as you’re “falling in love every second song”. They’re not really a band you could dance to or a band to make you want to have it large with your mates. Instead they make music, which is quietly raging and totally alive, living with you and sharing your own feelings, failings and jokes. And whatever story the sales figures tell, Leaders Of The Free World is an ambitious and beautiful album that confirms Elbow as one of the bands of our generation. This is truly a record to treasure.
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