Elbow: The Best Of (album review)

In a fascinating about-face, Elbow have used their best-of compilation to shun the fuzzed-out rockers that helped launch them to stardom and instead refashion themselves as mid-tempo artistic luminaries.

The Best Of
1 Dec 2017

When it comes to the Ramsbottom-bred boys of the band Elbow, their great, emotional, epic-sounding songs made for fine singles, but more often than not, those releases just teased out albums that were so much more intricate in scope, so much more satisfying in the presentation. In many estimations, 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid is an out-and-out rock masterpiece, winning the coveted Mercury Music Prize and cementing the band’s reputation as the smarter, wiser elder statesmen of British alternative rock, their whiskey-glazed laments continuing to connect with people even as the band soon approaches their 20th year in existence.

So while some may say that Elbow is overdue for a career retrospective, some may wonder how the band’s sprawling sound would work when cherry-picked from their deliberately-crafted full-lengths. In short, it works out surprisingly well.

The standard edition starts off boldly: it opens with “Grounds for Divorce”, one of the most aggressive, rocking numbers that continues to be used in countless movie trailers to this day. It may very well be the band’s most recognizable songs in the state, but then it segues right into “Magnificent (She Says)”, a surging, string-driven number off of their 2017 album Little Fictions. From there? “Lippy Kids”, their haunting, gorgeous meditation on the joys of childhood. Then, the opening suite of songs concludes with “One Day Like This”, arguably the most anthemic song in their catalog, lead singer Guy Garvey’s voice leading a choir of voices as Pete Turner and the Potter brothers help craft a “Hey Jude”-styled singalong moment that to this day remains their highest-charting song in the UK. While some may still argue the merits of “Magnificent” in the ranking of the group’s greatest works, these other three songs were the absolute must-include numbers for any truly serious Elbow compilation.

From there, however, things take a different route, especially when you count in all the songs on the two-disc deluxe edition. Early successes like “Red” (their debut chart entry) being shunned for more mature works like their debut album’s “Newborn”, which features one of the band’s best opening lines ever (“I’ll be the corpse on your bathtub”). In fact, when given a choice, the band frequently goes for pomp and bombast over fuzzed-out rock numbers, opting for electronics-tinged ballads like “My Sad Captains” over more accessible pop nuggets like “Forget Yourself”.

In many ways, this compilation shares a good deal of familiarity with fellow Britpoppers Blur, who used their 2009 collection Midlife: A Beginner’s Guide to Blur to refashion themselves as more serious-minded artistic outfit than the giddy pop stalwarts who released charming radio fodder on a regular basis. No one would ever accuse Elbow of selling out too hard, but it’s obvious from this set that their heart rests in their mid-tempo works, and those easy rock hits that helped launch them into fame take a backseat to their greater triumphs, which is why the opener from 2005’s Leaders of the Free World (“Station Approach”) — which was never released as a single — is included in the deluxe edition while “Fallen Angel”, the in-your-face rock hit that announced their second album Cast of Thousands, is nowhere to be found here. (Leaders‘ closing ballad, “Puncture Repair”, also has a place here — all 110 seconds of it.)

While the band add in some new material in the form of their cover of the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers” (which sounds exactly like you’d expect an Elbow cover of the song to sound like), some other new entries like “Kindling (Fickle Flame)” featuring John Grant could easily have left off without anyone’s heart being broken. Yet make no mistake: The Best Of is still an excellent collection of singles, no matter which way you paint it. By focusing so much on the mid-tempo cuts that the band clearly has a great affinity for, there is a bit of a sameness that one experiences when listening to all of these songs in sequence, but given the wealth of carefully-considered lyrics and triumphant music to be found here, one can easily forgive such minor quibbles. This remains a worthy collection for fans both casual and hardcore alike.

RATING 8 / 10