Elbow 2024
Photo: Peter Neill / High Rise PR

Elbow Bend with the Times on ‘Audio Vertigo’

Guy Garvey and company return with renewed energy, a punchier attack and infectious grooves on Elbow’s tenth studio album, Audio Vertigo.

Audio Vertigo
22 March 2024

Guy Garvey is one of contemporary rock’s most unusual frontmen. His greying beard and dadbod physique give him the appearance of an average bloke you’d meet down at the corner pub. On stage, his courtly mannerisms are both professorial and utterly magnetic. He can get a festival crowd to chant words like “love” and “beautiful” with revivalist fervour and coax four-part harmony from an arena full of non-singers.

Garvey’s lyrical persona is equally distinctive as homespun aphorisms clash with surreal poeticism. The Manchester accent in which he sings suits the publican humour he often drops into songs (“Hallelujah buy us a pint!”), while his gift for dramatic phrasing lends an anthemic touch to his choruses.

The sound of Elbow defies categorization, inhabiting the liminal spaces between indie pop, post-rock, and progressive rock. Since their 2001 debut album, Asleep in the Back, comparisons to Coldplay and Radiohead have gradually dissipated with the expansion of Elbow’s musical range. Brothers Mark and Craig Potter (guitar and keyboards, respectively) and bassist Pete Turner have stuck with Garvey for over 30 years – a persistence that rings through the group’s catalogue.

Audio Vertigo, Elbow’s tenth studio album, is both a return to form and a step into new musical territory. The sound familiar to long-term listeners remains prevalent, while elements of funk and Eurodisco creep into the grooves. A few songs, especially “Things I’ve Been Telling Myself for Years” and “Good Blood Mexico City”, are the hardest rock the group has produced in years. The lockdown lyricism of Elbow’s previous album, 2021’s Flying Dream 1, is replaced by a new expansive energy.

The record kicks off with “Things I’ve Been Telling Myself for Years”. A lurking riff by Mark Potter and Pete Turner recalls classic funk and 1970s glam as drummer Alex Reeves (a touring member since 2017, now fully integrated into the group) lays down a nimble groove. Slabs of wah-wah guitar and bassy synthesizers suggest the band members have been spinning the likes of George Clinton, Curtis Mayfield, and Giorgio Moroder in recent years.

“Lover’s Leap”, Audio Vertigo‘s first single, boosts the tempo with Latin percussion and burbling synthesizers in an odd accumulation of styles. The chorus is one of those singalong earworms at which Garvey excels, with a sparse set of lyrics about immortal love. A quieter coda concludes the track with a lovely testament to beauty in the final couplet: “Though there isn’t an artist alive / Who could get your eyes.”

Keyboardist and producer Craig Potter asserts himself more strongly on “Balu”, a slab of synth-driven funk more upbeat than Elbow’s usual fare. Later, “Good Blood Mexico City” pushes things even further, recalling the rock energy of classic tracks like “Fallen Angel” (on 2003’s Cast of Thousands) and “Grounds for Divorce” (on 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid). It’s refreshing to hear Elbow hit the beat a little harder than they’ve done in recent years.

For all the newfound drive in the music, Guy Garvey’s lyrics retain their usual bittersweet reveries. Single lines stand out like bolded text: “Here’s to walking into every room like ascending for an Oscar”; “You’re a slender and elegant foot on the neck”; “There’s no cocaine in this cocaine”; “When the sun goes down the night explodes in their eyes.” Conveying tenderness, frustration, and dark humour, such lines stand out amid the complex relationships and personal futilities revealed in the songs.

At the same time, Garvey’s idiom has a distinctly British flair that partly explains Elbow’s lack of significant success in North America. Barbed lines – “I’ll dig you back up when they kill you / And hollow your skull for my wine” – turn up now and again to check your irony meter. Even the darkest lyrical moments, such as the street brawl in Istanbul he recalls witnessing in “Knife Fight”, contain wry humour easily mistaken for cynicism.

The relatively short playing time of Audio Vertigo – 12 tracks, three of which are brief interludes, lasting just over 39 minutes – seems geared to the renewed dominance of vinyl for physical album releases. The songs are more concise than many in Elbow’s back catalogue, reflecting the group’s gradual shift away from prog-inspired arrangements. The lush strings and choruses heard on earlier albums are less prevalent on Audio Vertigo as the rhythms (thanks mainly to Reeves’s creative drumming) become more complex.

New videos for “Lover’s Leap” and “Balu” and plans for a major UK arena tour demonstrate Elbow’s commitment to expanding their audience. With any justice, the punchier attack and infectious grooves on Audio Vertigo will see them increase their presence on the western side of the Atlantic as well.

RATING 9 / 10