A fire is by its very nature a tantrum of elements -- instability made manifest. As it approaches equalization through conversion, it approaches calm. This is the same conceptual space occupied by Elbow’s Dead in the Boot.
There’s a window of time during the night, long after the last camper has gone to bed, when the once raging bonfire calms to the slow burn of embers. If anyone were still awake, the fire would inevitably be provoked back into something more lively. But in the silence of sleep, the process plays out unhindered by intervention. If you happen to wake between midnight and dawn and you take a moment to climb out of your sleeping bag, leave the tent, and make your way back to central bonfire pit, you’ll find a warm slow burn hissing quietly and consistently -- for hours. A fire is by its very nature a tantrum of elements, instability made manifest. As it approaches equalization through conversion, it approaches calm. This is the same conceptual space occupied by Elbow’s Dead in the Boot.
There are no sudden flare-ups, there is no angst or instability, no melodrama and no obligation to unleash upon the listener anything that might be considered catchy or overly anthemic. Dead in the Boot gives the impression that it was recorded after everyone had gone to bed and the band, nodding knowingly at each other, began to play their gentle adult lullabies -- including, not coincidentally, a track called “Lullaby”. This is not rock and roll. It’s not post-punk or college rock. It’s not folk or even chamber music. As cliche as it feels to say it, Elbow are entirely unique in their consistency with respect to this ‘soft’ ethos. It’s a well-crafted collection of 14 moody atmospheres, sincere vocal delivery, and perfectly mixed arrangements to lull you into calm.
The opening track, “Whisper Grass”, begins with a ticking hi-hat counting away the moments while a monotone piano keeps pace. Guy Garvey, his voice either electronically layered or harmonized with near-perfect precision, gently introduces the body of the tune before it descends into what constitutes the noisiest peak on the record around the halfway mark. It’s gone as quickly as it came and right back into the quiet. But as he sings the chorus, “The air gets thin I / Came down, gave in, I”, it begins to become unbridled again. There have been Elbow songs in the past which pull no punches when it comes to the wall of noise crescendos, but not once does this cross over into anything that leaves the aforementioned arena of mellow. It’s as though they wanted to get the hard stuff out of the way. It’s merely a setup for the slightly groovier “Lucky with Disease”, which follows.
Understand that when I use words like “groovy” in this context, I am talking about a groove so deep that moving to it would send you tumbling into its abyss. Guy playfully chit-chats his way through this one employing his falsetto for an atypical articulation of melody while the drums and strings remain relatively consistent. This is a song that could easily have gone on three times longer than it did. But we move on to “Lay Down Your Cross”, a very familiar-sounding arrangement which would be at home on any of the band's five LPs. While an enjoyable song, it didn’t hook me at first. But as is Elbow’s MO, the previously meandering melody gives way at the 2:50 mark to something epic and beautiful, which redeems the entire track. I am reminded that patience is rewarded and that theme is important to the enjoyment of everything that comes afterward.
“The Long War Shuffle” is the album’s highlight. A simple rock and roll break shuffles along with a splendidly subtle but punchy bassline while Guy sings lines like “I’m so sick of waiting / And I know you feel the same / I’m not getting any younger / And I know you feel the same / So everyone dance as if you don’t care / Everyone move - pretend it isn’t there“. It’s punctuated by amped-up slide guitar stabs and a solo. As always, Guy never leaves his safe place, quietly delivering the lyrics as though his primary concern were not waking up the kids.
From beginning to end, the record oscillates within the comfortable zone set up by these introductory tracks. It’s every bit as well-crafted as their previous work. What makes that particularly notable is that this isn’t a single work. It’s actually an assembled collection of previously unreleased or hard-to-find b-sides. I had actually listened to it many times and made up my mind about the quality before I ever read about the nature of the record. It illustrates my point about the band's consistency over time. Every one of these tracks is worth playing repeatedly -- there isn’t a single bit of ‘filler’ in spite of the tracks being bastards and b-sides. They work flawlessly as a single listen from end to end -- the soundtrack of your next hour of quiet time.
“Dead in the Boot” is a reference to the band’s first record “Asleep in the Back”, probably because it’s a few years on now. For the North American readers, the boot is what the British call the trunk of the car. I feel almost ashamed for my fellow North Americans that the band has not reached the scale or notoriety that they have in the UK, where all of their previous albums made it into the Top 20 and at least 7 singles into the Top 40. It’s not as if English bands have never known US success -- in fact, they often dominate it. If I had to speculate as to why, I would say that it’s difficult to pin down the format and sound of this music. “Relaxing Rock and Roll” doesn’t really have a place on popular radio in North America if it doesn’t fit the ballad paradigm, and these aren’t ballads.
“Lullaby” brings to mind some of the best work of Radiohead, if they had chosen more organic instruments on In Rainbows. “McGreggor” seems a stab at a traditional working man’s chan,t which stalks along mechanically while the vocals are called out from the back of a dark alley. “Buffalo Ghosts“, like the image the name conjures, floats around hauntingly.
By the time the embers of the fire have finally fizzled, the audience has been lulled to a deep sleep. Though that analogy may imply that there was nothing exciting about the record, the contrary is true. It’s exciting for the very reason that it’s a soothing, beautiful listen from opening beat to the final shuffle of “Gentle As”. If you’re an Elbow fan, you don’t need me to tell you that this means go forth and buy the album with confidence that it’s yet another solid assembly of somber melodies. If they’re new to you, this will probably be just the beginning of a long and easy love affair with the band.