Build a Rocket Boys!, the first record of the 2010s by the Manchester rock outfit Elbow, nears its conclusion with the jubilant “Open Arms”. Backed by the Hallé Youth Choir, frontman Guy Garvey chants in the chorus, “We’ve got open arms / For broken hearts / Like yours, my boy / Come home again.” It’s the kind of life-affirming anthem one sings arm in arm with a group of friends a crowded music festival, a mode in which Elbow excels. Think of the megahit “One Day Like This”, or “Grace Under Pressure”, a song whose crescendo was recorded at Glastonbury, with a Cast of Thousands (as the band’s 2003 album of the same name has it) shouting, “We still believe in love so fuck you.” Elbow are far from emotionally one-dimensional, but when they commit to optimism, they stick the landing better than most of their contemporaries.
With the second decade of the 21st century reaching its end, Elbow don’t sound so optimistic. “Dexter & Sinister”, the lead track and single on the group’s latest album Giants of All Sizes, kicks into gear with Garvey brooding, “And I don’t know Jesus anymore / And an endless sleep is awaiting me / And I haven’t finished yet / And I’m not a dog for the end of days / I’m a bird in a hurricane.” Garvey describes the song as “a great, big, bewildered question dealing with my feelings on Brexit”, one that aims to capture “the general sense of disaffection you see all around at the moment”.
As of the time of my writing this review, Britain is still slowly trodding down the long road that is Brexit, with all forks in the road looking rather grim. Elbow have never been shy about their politics; one of their classic rock numbers, the title cut of 2005’s Leaders of the Free World, calls Western leaders “just little boys throwing stones”. Elbow’s last release before Giants, 2017’s Little Fictions, is measured in its tone toward Brexit, at the time tenuous but nonetheless worrying. “Jesus, getting harder to see what they’re doing ’til it’s done,” Garvey sings on “K2”. Things haven’t gotten much better for Elbow’s native UK in the past two years, with Brexit looking more and more like a no-end-in-sight existential state rather than a date with a doomsday clock to its name.
Incredibly, in the face of all this, several tunes on Giants match and even rise above the optimism of a tune like “Open Arms”. “My Trouble,” an instant Elbow classic, features one of Garvey’s most gorgeous vocal performances, culminating in a string-bathed crescendo where he repeats, almost like a prayer, “Come get me / Guide and check me / Sail and wreck me / Soak me to my skin.” On “Weightless”, a loving tribute to his young son, he sees the face of his father in his newborn: “Hey / You look like me / So we / Look like him.” These reminders of life’s joys, taken out of context, may come across as mawkish in dark times – particularly on “Weightless”, one of the sprightliest tunes in the Elbow catalogue. But Giants doesn’t linger on any one emotion for too long.
It’s a testament to Garvey’s lyrical range and the depth of Elbow’s musicianship that the relatively brief Giants sounds as bustling as it does. Clocking in at 38 minutes, Giants is the shortest Elbow studio record by a significant margin. But brevity doesn’t come at the expense of depth here; the rollercoaster of emotions which begins with the gritty “Dexter & Sinister” and ends with the bright-eyed “Weightless” is a thrill to experience. There are only a few dull patches, notably “Doldrums” (a wonky, late Beatles-esque reflection on wealth inequality) and “On Deronda Road” (a tune consisting of a single repeated verse, which feels like an incomplete sketch). In almost every way, Giants continues the streak of good-to-excellent studio records, which comprise Elbow’s output in this decade.
In what is probably the most significant development on this album, Elbow sound like they finally figured out how to channel their heavier rock style in the absence of former drummer Richard Jupp, who departed right before Little Fictions. The band took a simple and repetitive approach to percussion and drums on that record (performed by Alex Reeves, who returns for Giants), derived from beat-making by keyboardist and producer Craig Potter. Even on Little Fictions‘ most rock-heavy moments – the explosion of the title track, the dramatic sweep of “Magnificent (She Says)” – the drumming doesn’t sound as physical as it had on previous Elbow LPs.
Reeves served as Elbow’s drummer for the Little Fictions tour, and even though he’s not listed as a full proper member in the way that Jupp was, his presence feels closer to that now than it does a session player. The big anthems “Empires” and “White Noise White Heat”, the latter a searing indictment of the British government’s failures to help the victims of the Grenfell Tower incident, hit with the same kind of punch one finds in Elbow staples like “Grounds for Divorce”. Like Little Fictions, Giants doesn’t try to be a rock record akin to Leaders of the Free World, or the band’s breakthrough effort The Seldom Seen Kid, but when it goes there, it’s a reminder that these guys fill out stadiums across the globe for a reason.
For all of its weighty political themes, Giants doesn’t feel like a grand statement, though it easily could have been considering just how fraught everything is in the world. But Elbow have always shown humble aspirations for their music, even when it’s at its most musically intricate. Giants doesn’t insist that it be seen as part of our time. But in its compositional diversity and its thoughtful commentary on the troubles we face, Giants sounds like a perfect accompaniment to this troubled period in human history. Elbow thus exit this decade the same way they came into it: as, paradoxically, one of Britain’s most successful and underrated rock acts.