Sometimes a memory feels like a dream, and sometimes, it is so visceral that you start to believe it happened. Flying dreams can’t possibly be real, but they’re the ones you wish would never end. Out of the fever dream of the past 18 months, Elbow have produced their ninth studio release, Flying Dream 1. Unable to work as a group during the lockdown, the songs on the album were written alone but together. The quartet passed musical ideas to one another from their respective home studios, sharing and building upon individual snippets. As a result, the songs became a kind of conversational thread between faraway friends. Because of the isolation, the album has a more introspective feel than previous releases. There are none of the swaying, hands-in-the-air anthems such as “One Day Like This”, nor any acerbic rockers like “White Noise White Heat”. Instead, Flying Dream 1 soars quietly with the unabashedly earnest love songs Elbow do so well.
The title track lodged itself comfortably in my brain after only a couple of listens. The humming backing vocals, soft oohs and mmms, sound at first like a placeholder, as though the band were waiting for the BBC Orchestra to arrive and fill in its part. But a string section would have spoiled the casual, familial feel of the tune. Lyrics like “Mum and my sisters all blissful at feather / Candlewick swaddled my golden wee brother” are sung from the point of view of a somnambulant child describing simple domestic comforts. Place names in the band’s native Lancashire are strung through one verse, guiding the dreaming boy home. In the song’s last third, Craig Potter’s jazzy piano weaves among the background voices, which are brought forward in the mix, sounding more intentional and soulful. It’s as lovely a song as Elbow has ever recorded.
In addition to the title song, two other tracks are slated for release as singles. On “Six Words”, frontman Guy Garvey sings those words – “I’m falling in love with you” – over a cascading piano that gives way to a joyous reggae shuffle halfway through. Even though the lyrics veer towards cliché at times (“I know the view from up on top of the world”), this is not a typical love song. Anyone can sing about loving someone; “Six Words” is about the astonishment of being loved in return.
The third single, “The Seldom Seen Kid”, refers to Garvey’s friend Bryan Glancy, who lent his nickname to the band’s 2008 album. Glancy died in 2006 before Garvey began dating Rachael Stirling, who he would later marry. The song imagines Glancy dancing with Stirling, inventing a memory that never happened but, like a good dream, feels like it could have. It dwells in the simple pleasure of introducing the people you love to the person who loves you. However, a sense of sadness can’t help but pervade the song, which is underscored by the waltz-time and the dissonant bass clarinet underneath.
Other standout tracks are “After the Eclipse” and “Is It a Bird”, which both have the quiet, reflective feel of the whole collection. The understated instrumentation allows Garvey’s lustrous baritone to come to the fore and his reaches into falsetto to carry more impact.
I’ve always marveled at Elbow’s ability to write mature love songs that come across as sincere without being saccharine. The object of the tracks can be a friend, a child, or a spouse, but they all proudly wear their heart on their sleeve. How many bands could call a song “Calm and Happy” (another favorite) and get away with it? Yet Elbow pulls it off on the strength of their deft musicianship and collaborative songwriting. Together for 25 years now, the band members’ bond with one another is probably the longest adult relationship each one has had. It shows in this release; the confidence and trust they have as a group is manifested in the songs.
Flying Dream 1 also trusts its listeners, asking us to hold a quiet space for the music and let it reveal itself over time. It requires a tiny leap of faith to “step into the air” and fly.