The Mancunian quintet seem to be reassessing their songwriting approach, experimenting a bit, and tweaking their signature sound. If this sixth album is any indication, Elbow’s chef-d'œuvre is still ahead on the horizon.
Midlife crises have seldom been so beautifully documented than those on Elbow’s sixth studio album. Following on the heels of the artistically safe Build a Rocket Boys! and the 2012 B-sides compilation Dead in the Boot, the Mancunian quintet seem to be reassessing their songwriting approach, experimenting a bit, and tweaking their signature sound. Originally entitled All at Once, then renamed Carry Her, Carry Me, the awkwardly-titled The Take Off and Landing of Everything is seldom an album of stadium-sized, Elbow-esque sing-a-long anthems, although there are a few interspersed throughout the record’s hour-long running time. The record sees the band re-embrace the intimate production values they delivered with such poise on their startlingly mature debut, Asleep in the Back. Themes of aging, change, loss, friendship and unrest aren’t unfamiliar to the band’s lyrical subject matter, but they rarely are wrapped within songs this subtly sublime.
Few frontmen possess voices as gorgeously world-weary as Guy Garvey. In an overcrowded industry full of wailing pop/rock tenors, Garvey’s sonorous baritone remains as refreshingly distinctive as when it first appeared on the scene fourteen years ago. Ever the consummate poet, his clever lyrics are as integral to the success of the band as any of the countless hummable choruses they’ve ever released. As sarcastically scathing as he can often be in his songs, there’s always an undercurrent of romanticism to counterbalance it, such as in the opening seven-minute track “This Blue World”, which contains the lovely line: "While three chambers of my heart beat true and strong with love for another / The fourth is yours forever."
This year, as Garvey turns 40 and the realities of middle age seep into the thoughts of he and his band members, it’s not particularly shocking that this would be reflected in both the tone of the album and the lyrics within. In addition to the undeniable actuality of aging, his ten-year relationship with girlfriend and novelist Emma Jane Unsworth dissolved during the course of writing and recording the record. Rarely though does it scream “break-up album” like Leaders of the Free World did. Never quite despairing, the title The Take Off and Landing of Everything reveals its meaning as the record unfolds, displaying the meditative side of Garvey, as he struggles with being both acquiescent and in flux about the uncertainties of life and getting older.
The large part of 2012 saw Garvey living in New York while he developed songs for the King Kong musical, presently playing in Melbourne, Australia. Flitting between the UK and the US gave him a chance to contemplate his life, his breakup, and in turn, remain relatively anonymous in a metropolis of millions. It appears his “love affair with Brooklyn” and the city at large proved to be one of the main inspirational sources for lead single “New York Morning”. While easily the most instantly accessible of the ten songs, it pales in comparison to others surrounding it; however, expect that chorus, and the other one found on the superior track “Sad Captains”, to be sung loudly at concerts from here on out.
Written at six in the morning at Manhattan’s Moonstuck Café, the song celebrates the city and its countless inhabitants. "And oh, my giddy aunt, New York can talk, It's the modern Rome and folk are nice to Yoko." While the song contains one of the album’s most inane and leftfield references, its sentiments are steeped in some reality, as witnessed by the positive audience reaction when Yoko Ono quietly walked into New York’s Le Poisson Rouge to see Cibo Matto perform recently. The woman who once courted worldwide controversy and was sometimes blamed for the breakup of the Beatles, is now revered in the city that forgives and embraces diversity and the eccentric.
The centerpiece of the album without doubt, is the aforementioned “Sad Captains”, yet the wonderfully ornery “Charge” and the languorous, slinky resignation of “Honey Sun” are equally as notable. Inspired by a line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, “Sad Captains” takes the steady, stomping, percussive handclaps found in The Seldom Seen Kid’s “Grounds For Divorce”, slows them down to a barroom-inebriated pace, tosses in an elegant horn section and adds a twinkling, arpeggiated organ melody underneath it all. It’s doubtful there’s as wistful a song about losing one’s drinking buddies in existence. "Another sunrise with my sad captains/with who I choose to lose my mind, and if it’s so we only pass this way just once, what a perfect waste of time".
On the pulsing “Honey Sun”, with it’s accompanying dirge-like hummed vocals, Garvey sings "She and I won’t find another me and her... I know a place where angels lace the lemonade, and I cannot stay where all the broken plans are made." Clearly it’s a reference to his dissolved relationship, yet even if the underpinning subject matter is bittersweet, the man still has a brilliant way with a word. Not since the Divine Comedy’s “A Lady of a Certain Age”, has the plight of the elderly been this insightfully captured in song. The striking fiddle, serious-minded strings, anxious organ, and shifting tempo-changes of the pseudo-anthemic “Charge”, perfectly embody Garvey’s character study of an elderly man simmering with frustration and indignation at the youth surrounding him in a bar. "Glory be, these fuckers are ignoring me," he mutters one minute, then in turn both angry and dejected says, "I’ve broken jaws protecting laws to keep you free. I made your day so take a seat by me." It’s the individual we’ve all witnessed at the local bar, perfectly rendered by Garvey and company.
“Fly Boy Blue + Lunette”, with its stacked, emotionless vocals is set in the bar of an airport lounge, of all places. The song begins with a swaggering electric bass and a schizophenic, cacophonous brass section, before yielding to a slower shuffled tempo as Guy becomes nostalgically sappy the more he drinks. The song is full of sardonic lines like, "I’m having a shindig, me, red Bob and the ivory host and someone’s shouting on the box / a chinless prefect gone Godzilla. My newest friends have forgotten my name, so have I / So far, so good." Garvey has few peers as lyrically gifted.
This really isn’t the masterpiece early buzz has heaped upon it, although it’s easily one of Elbow’s best records to date. The willingness to experiment is admirable, as so many bands would continue churning out the same formulaic songs that had brought on the commercial and critical plaudits they’d garnered to begin with. The band was savvy enough to recognize that at this point in their career, it was vital for them to reevaluate the process by which they compose their songs. Relegating the songwriting to individuals, instead of collectively writing as a group from the album’s early inception seems to have done the trick, as it clearly revitalized their creativity. It would have been interesting if they had pushed the experimentation to its extremes, like they hint at on “Charge” and the disquieting, synth-laden ode to immigrant refugees “The Blanket of Night”, but there’s a fine line between alienating your core fan base and humoring your artistic instincts in order to explore different creative avenues.
To some, The Take Off and Landing of Everything might initially disappoint, as it isn’t necessarily as immediate as many of it’s predecessors. It takes a few spins to fully appreciate the complexity and ambitious scope at hand here, but this is the type of album that unfolds the longer one marinates in its charms. While this isn't the classic album some might proclaim, it clearly indicates that Elbow’s chef-d'œuvre is still ahead on the horizon. They're getting quite close. As Garvey and company enter middle-age and continue to write songs that challenge themselves and their audience, there’s little doubt their finest hours as a band are yet to come. Consider this but a taste.