Two songs cast a long shadow over the career of Elbow, one of Northern England’s most popular musical exports. Both songs feature on the band’s 2008 masterpiece, The Seldom Seen Kid, and have since been heard at nearly if not all Elbow gigs. The first, “Grounds for Divorce”, is a boot-stomping, bluesy rock number that opens with one of frontman Guy Garvey‘s best lyrics: “I’ve been working on a cocktail called grounds for divorce.” The bitter tone of “Grounds for Divorce” is counterbalanced by the second of these two songs, the joyous call to camaraderie “One Day Like This”. Driven by a vivacious octave riff played by a string section, “One Day Like This” is a reminder that the doldrums of life — the kind documented on “Grounds for Divorce” — can always be overcome by that one perfect day. Both songs contributed to Elbow’s stellar 2008, which was capped off by a Mercury Prize victory over several highly acclaimed records by English bands, including Radiohead’s In Rainbows. Since then, Elbow’s star has only emitted more and more light, particularly in their native England, where it routinely sells out massive stadium gigs.
Singles like “Grounds for Divorce” and “One Day Like This”, which enter the public consciousness with an almost immediate ubiquity, immediately create a lofty bar to vault for a band like Elbow. The enormous success of these songs leaves an implicit question hanging in the air: Where will these guys go next? Since 2008, Elbow has written songs that fill arenas just as well — perhaps better — than either of those tunes: “The Birds”, “Open Arms”, and the career highlight “This Blue World” chief among them. But like any group with an interest in self-innovation, Elbow followed up The Seldom Seen Kid with an album in many ways quite unlike it: 2011’s Build a Rocket Boys! Whereas “Grounds for Divorce” hits the listener with a gut-punch guitar riff and “One Day Like This” lifts spirits with a gospel-like positivity, Build a Rocket Boys! cuts like “Lippy Kids” and “Jesus is a Rochdale Girl” get their emotional impact from sparse, hushed soundscapes. “Lippy Kids” achieves its sublimity through nothing more than voice (both Garvey’s and that of the The Hallé Youth Choir) and minimal piano and bass. The stunning melancholy of “The River”, one of Elbow’s strongest album cuts, is similarly minimalistic in its musical poetry. Boldly, Elbow decided that following up The Seldom Seen Kid required no capitulation to the demands of stadium crowds, with booming riffs abound. Build a Rocket Boys! did not thwart the momentum built up by its predecessor, but it did focus that energy inward, and the result is a quiet, beautiful collection of songs as only a seasoned and mature band could write them.
Elbow’s achievements on Build a Rocket Boys! challenge a statement of Garvey’s, regarding the group’s seventh LP, Little Fictions, in which he claims there is “a sparseness to the songs which perhaps we’re not known for”. Elbow has long excelled at the economy of composition, a skill exemplified in the hushed moments of Build a Rocket Boys!. Even a minute-long choral recapitulation of “The Birds” late in the record leaves a distinct impression. Little Fictions continues the project of Build a Rocket Boys!, in addition to extending on some of the meditative, quiet moments that feature in the second half of The Take Off and Landing of Everything (2014). If one were to know Elbow only for its hits, Little Fiction numbers like “Head for Supplies” and “Montparnasse” may seem like a detour into the introspective, but anyone tracking the band’s career up to this point will be able to trace the sonic through lines that have led up to this new LP.
The relative mellowness of Little Fictions is not incidental to a significant lineup change within Elbow, which took place in 2016. Drummer Richard Jupp parted ways with his four bandmates, as he decided to focus on projects he had been developing over many years, particularly drum clinics and instruction. Session drummer Alex Reeves — who played on Guy Garvey’s 2015 solo record Courting the Squall — takes up Jupp’s spot on Little Fictions, though Elbow has decided to remain a four-piece consisting of Garvey, Pete Turner (bass), Mark Potter (guitar), and Craig Potter (keyboards and production). Beats play an important role on Little Fictions, but by and large they are more muted and less rock-oriented than on the group’s past outings. The style of beats aligns more with trip-hop and electronic than it does rock; the punchy snare on “Grounds for Divorce” and the head-banging energy of “Mexican Standoff” are not anywhere to be found.
Given the tendency towards introspection on Elbow records post-Seldom Seen Kid, Jupp’s departure does not fundamentally alter the songwriting style or musical chemistry of the remaining four members. The band works around this lineup change by emphasizing its already existing trend toward simple arrangements, in many places to great effect. “Montparnasse”, like “The River” before it, juxtaposes minimalist piano with a gorgeous vocal by Garvey, who paints a globe-spanning, panoramic picture of a relationship. “May brings a supermoon gold and relentless / And the dog bats of Melbourne fall from the blue / Swerving casinos and swatting at memories of you,” he sings, then later reminiscing, “The lights on your father’s bridge on the harbor / Montparnasse dawn for the sleepless insane.” “Montparnasse” only runs 2:41, yet its emotional well runs as deep as songs three or four times its length.
“Gentle Storm” uses a similarly scant list of ingredients — voice, keyboard, and drums — to a prayer-like effect, as Garvey pines, “Fall in love with me / Fall in love with me / Every day.” Little Fictions‘ predecessor, The Take Off and Landing of Everything, focused primarily on the somber end of the emotional spectrum, and here Elbow does a significant about-face, emphasizing positivity and optimism. The record opens up with the simple, anthemic declaration: “It’s all gonna be magnificent.” Garvey’s lyrics, which are given ample space to shine given the sparse arrangements that back him, are as usual several notches above the pack. His high-level diction and literary affectations, which always sound classy in his Bury accent, are typified in the vivid recounting of an argument that opens the title track: “A muffled battle cry across a kitchen table / A baffling contretemps that shakes the day unstable.” Album closer “Kindling” takes an ordinary moment — Garvey’s telephone ringing while he’s on a train — and imbues it with poetic significance: “Then my telephone shakes into life and I see your name / And the wheat fields explode into gold either side of the train.”
It’s not all muted composition on Little Fictions, however. Elbow hits the heights of bombastic tracks like “One Day Like This” and “The Birds” on “Magnificent (She Says)” and “Little Fictions”, each of which are bound to become concert favorites around the globe. “Magnificent” features an unfussy configuration of guitar, drums, and bass that are taken to soaring heights by a string section in the chorus. The title cut, one of Elbow’s most adventurous compositions to date, uses quietly menacing verses that intermix major and minor key riffs and figures to build tension that is seemingly thwarted by a spare chorus, with Garvey’s voice and snare drum front and center. When the song explodes in its second half, the payoff is tremendous: the deceptive moments where the song seems to rise or seems to come to a dead halt all coalesce in a life-affirming conclusion that’s pure Elbow: “Life is the original miracle,” Garvey sings, “Love is the original miracle.”
Little Fictions comes at a turning point in Elbow’s career. The loss of an original band member is no small thing, and it is a testament to Elbow’s craft that it extends its already enviable legacy so successfully. If there is a weakness to Little Fictions, it is that it too often parks in the mid-tempo range, a move that Garvey also made on Courting the Squall. The swanky piano figure on “Firebrand & Angel” would have been benefited from a payoff more potent than the one it actually gets. Still, there’s never an instance on Little Fictions where Elbow sounds like it’s on autopilot, a worthy feat considering the band’s multi-decade existence and seven studio outings. More than anything, though, it’s Elbow’s embrace of the good and heartwarming in life after all this time — even in an era when, as Garvey sang over ten years ago, “the leaders of the free world are just little boys throwing stones” — that makes Little Fictions another memorable release for Elbow. Compositionally, Elbow remains one of rock music’s most invaluable practitioners, and the complexity of this music makes Garvey’s positive pronouncements on life feel real, not platitudinal. When he sings “Yes and I’m given to believing in love” on “K2”, you can’t help but feel the same.