Lost Worker Bee can't help but feel like something of a stopgap, but it shows flashes of Elbow's brilliance.
For all of the things that make Elbow's music so pleasingly complicated -- frontman Guy Garvey's lyrical loquaciousness, a penchant for intricately composed tunes -- there's a homespun simplicity at the emotional core of the band. Though the city of Manchester has given the world many rock legends, including the Smiths and Oasis, few if any groups apart from Elbow have worn their heritage in the Northern English city with such pride. Any time Garvey sings about going home, a childlike enthusiasm for the past lingers strongly. "Coming home I feel like I designed / The buildings I walk by," goes a verse in "Station Approach", the opening track to 2005's excellent Leaders of the Free World, a record that the NME appropriately calls "a love-letter… to Manchester." Looking back on youth on the graceful "Lippy Kids" off of 2011's Build a Rocket Boys!, Garvey asks of the titular rabble-rousers: "Do they know those days are golden?"
Because of this love of Manchester, the only surprising thing about Lost Worker Bee EP, a four-track collection which uses a longstanding symbol of the city as its title, is that it's taken this long for Elbow to get around to it. The city is a recurring image throughout Leaders of the Free World, popping up memorably in places like the chorus for "Forget Myself", where the city becomes a source of existential growth for Garvey: "No, I know / I won't forget you / But I'll forget myself / If the city will forgive me." However, Lost Worker Bee EP takes things a step further, with each song being rooted in the Manchester experience in some way.
The title track is the most explicit in the Manchester connection, telling the tale of a lovelorn Mancunian, looking for someone to "come be the Queen to my lost worker bee". The musical arrangement furthers the bee motif in an appealing way, with notes buzzing around Richard Jupp's airtight snare rhythm. The only moderately paced instrumental aspect of "Lost Worker Bee" -- the nest to the rest of the instruments' bees, if you will -- is a jubilant horn section that picks up the enthusiasm that Garvey delivers on the final chorus line. Much like the hypnotic lead piano line on "New York Morning", the lead single from The Take Off and Landing of Everything (2014), which uses a sharp ascending/descending octave figure to paint the ups and downs of the New York City skyline, the music of "Lost Worker Bee" reveals Elbow's aptitude in giving physical things an impeccable musical representation.
"Lost Worker Bee" constitutes the most successful moment on the EP, which means that there's something of a downhill slide towards the brief end. "And It Snowed" successfully juxtaposes a smooth bassline by Pete Turner and a simple octave riff on the keys by Craig Potter, but its tension simmers just before boiling point, leading to some unresolved tension being left over. The track sounds like it could have been left over from the sessions for The Take Off and Landing of Everything (and, if that is the case, then rightly so). Ebullient chorus vocals make "Roll Call" ripe for a sing-along, but the tune also doesn't explore much that numbers like "Open Arms" (from Build a Rocket Boys!) already haven't.
Fortunately, the spare acoustic lament "Usually Bright" closes the EP on a high note, with bittersweet sorrow and cheeky wit in equal measure. While drinking "the saddest gins, the saddest tonics" at "30,000 feet", Garvey identifies "the happiest man you'll ever meet" as "an Eton educated broker" sitting next to him, adding, "Sadly, I'm not even joking." Like a more lush version of the minimalist Build a Rocket Boys! tune "Jesus is a Rochdale Girl", "Usually Bright" is a fine showcase for Garvey's sharp lyrics and gorgeous, distinctly Northern English voice.
In a somewhat telling admission, Garvey explained the creation of Lost Worker Bee EP thusly on the band's website: “Elbow are involved in various solo projects and collaborative endeavours for the next few months and we just felt we really wanted to get ‘something’ away to tide fans over until the next album." Unsurprisingly, then, the EP does feel like a stopgap, a snack to sate the stomach before the full meal is served. Garvey does go on to say in that same announcement that "Far from being just a stopgap this is one of our proudest releases", citing the band's enthusiasm for both the EP format and for the city of Manchester to which the EP is dedicated. Though Elbow is right to take pride in how well they pay tribute to their city, in terms of musicality this is far more interstitial than it is standalone. Still, there is enough gleam in this music that the road ahead to the next record, whenever it might come, is quite bright indeed.