In the last few years, we’ve seen the rise of bands that marry a traditional rock grounding with ambient and impressionist influences. The problem is that these groups risk sounding formulaic; after all, a drone can only sound fresh for so long, and a gaze can quickly shift from shoes to navel. It would be easy to group these bands — including the Doves and Starsailor — into one category of artists trying to find their own voice and original means of expression. On its first album, 2001’s Asleep in the Back, this Manchester quintet proved itself to be a top member of the fold, if not exactly a groundbreaker. With Cast of Thousands, however, Elbow builds on its style to find a place of its own, which we must — at all costs — resist calling “elbow room”.
Elbow really stands out in its use of beautiful, shifting textures, created primarily by bassist Pete Turner, keyboard player Craig Potter, guitarist Mark Potter, and drummer Richard Jupp (who occasionally sounds like someone out of Hail to the Thief). While the first album broods, the 11 songs on this disc are mostly smooth and flowing, but “Snooks (Progress Report)” keeps an edge on with its shocking bursts of sound, making the song slightly unsettling, despite the seemingly innocuous lyrics. “Flying Dreams 143” represents the other end of the spectrum by being as loose and free as anything they’ve recorded. These atmospheres are aided by the able production of Ben Hillier, who’s previously received producer credits with Blur, Clinic, and Suede.
The liner notes help, but even a first listen reveals the appropriateness of the album’s title. The disc actually does contain performances by thousands of people. Elbow employs a string section on “Fugitive Motel” and “Crawling with Idiot”, and are joined by the band Alfie, Jimi Goodwin of the Doves, and vocalist Cathy Davey for the penultimate “Grace Under Pressure”.
It’s here on “Grace under Pressure” that the other interpretation of “Cast of Thousands” starts to realize itself. This track epitomizes the emotional expansiveness of the album. An increasing number of singers repeat the four lines of a simple, spirituals-influenced melody, until finally the “crowd at glastonbury 2002” insists, “We still believe in love so fuck you”. Elbow, a band that went through 10 years and three labels to get their first full-length album produced, has not only retained hope, but is making sure that their listeners are getting it. And anyone who doesn’t get it should watch out.
This lyrical attitude, provided by singer Guy Garvey, is new for Elbow. In Asleep in the Back, it gave us plenty of despair and frustration, a desire for “getting out of this place”, the awareness that “The whole town’s slipping down a hill / Like the spine of something dead”, and the claim, “I’ll be the corpse in the bathtub”. Over the past two years, the frustration has changed to longing, and the despair to hope. Even under difficult circumstances, Elbow’s narrators reach for fulfillment, telling a long-distance lover in “Fallen Angel” that “You don’t need to sleep alone tonight”, a sentiment echoed in “Fugitive Motel” in the chorus: “I blow you a kiss / It should reach you tomorrow / As it flies from the other side of the world”.
They haven’t gone softie on us, though. The album’s first lyrics, from “Ribcage,” are “We blew the doors, didn’t we? / Pissed in their champagne.” Despite the warmth of many of the lyrics, Cast of Thousands is decidedly not a Polyphonic hugfest. The lyrics may be optimistic and inviting, but the edge hasn’t dulled. “I’ve Got Your Number” features a thematic reprisal of Asleep in the Back‘s “Bitten by the Tailfly”. Both songs are sung by an embittered cynic removing the wool from a partner’s eyes (I could use lover if only that word wouldn’t be so antithetical here to the rest of the album). It’s not naïveté that leads to Elbow’s optimism; rather it’s the knowledge of something better left to long for.