Right from the beginning, Elbow’s been in the game for the long haul. Coming together at a university in Bury, England, back in 1991, the band struggled for almost ten years before the fates finally relented and 2001’s stellar debut Asleep in the Back was released to widespread critical acclaim via V2 records. It was the kind of staggeringly meticulous record characteristic of veterans — and they were veterans at that point, even if they only had one major release. Two more great albums followed on V2, each representing the continued development of an already mature sound.
This development continues on this year’s The Seldom Seen Kid. Still, rather than showcasing attempts at reinvention (often common in the middle years of established bands), the quintet’s fourth studio album sounds more like an attempt at consolidation: an effort to regroup and recoup after what seems to have been a fairly hectic decade.
The album opens up with the ghostly soul of “Starlings” — a track that pits searing synthesizer and layered tracks of singer Guy Garvey’s warm Northern croon against a murmuring electronic sample to mesmerizing effect. Elbow’s always been known to achieve majesty more naturally than the next Brit-rock balladeer (That’s you, Chris Martin), but on this track the feeling comes off even more delicately than it did on, say, the stomping “Station Approach”, which opened 2005’s Leaders of the Free World. What this shows is that the band has reached a new plateau of self-awareness, revealing a level of subtlety shared by only a select group of contemporaries (Radiohead and Wilco come to mind).
The orchestral trumpet blast that follows the wordless opening melody of “Starlings” is a great example of this new refinement. If you’re listening for detail on your headphones, it’ll take you completely by surprise (I nearly spilled coffee all over myself): a sudden explosion of horns and the crackle of an open snare. Now, a grandiose horn part like this might, at first, seem less than subtle, but when you consider that it’s recurrence in the arrangement utterly redefines the complexion of an otherwise innocuous pop song with just one note, it’s hard to overstate it’s contribution to the Elbow sound. On 2004’s Cast of Thousands, the band experimented with this kind of shock mixing on the song “Snooks”, but on The Seldom Seen Kid, ideas like this have been filed down, re-sculpted, and reincorporated into a much sparser musical landscape.
This use of space could be attributed to the group’s in-house producer, keyboardist Craig Potter, who took the helm for the new record. The musicianship is impeccable as always: Guy Garvey is still one of the best rock vocalists out there, bar none, and Potter’s instincts at the ivories are as sharp as ever, but it’s the overall sonic package that makes this new record a worthwhile addition to the Elbow canon.
On “Mirrorball”, for instance, the lilting glitter of the Potter brothers’ guitar and piano harmony once again supplies the kind of elegiac, melancholic bliss that only Elbow can deliver. I’m tempted to liken it to the best tracks by French duo Air, but there’s much more life to it than that. Guy Garvey’s sickly sweet lyrics about kissing “like we invented it” are, of course, shamelessly romantic, but poetry has always been secondary to raw emotion (both lyrically and non-lyrically) in Elbow’s music. You’ve just got to accept it for what it is, and there are songs on which this tactic just doesn’t work. “An Audience with the Pope” is just such a song. Described by Garvey in the press release as “A Bond theme if Bond was from Bury and a recovering Catholic,” the song is kitschy and sentimental, though it’s pleasant enough to let wash over you. The chorus lyric runs, “I have an audience with the Pope / I’m saving the world at eight / But if she says she needs me / Everybody’s gonna have to wait / Uh-huh”. As I said, don’t look for poetry here, but the real crime is a self-conscious attempt to sound sexy (as all Bond themes do), something that honestly comes more naturally to Elbow when they’re singing about a “dog without a collar on” (as they do on Asleep in the Back’s “Bitten by the Tail Fly”).
Ultimately, though, The Seldom Seen Kid is a genuine success. It’s an Elbow record through and through, and, in being so, exudes a sense of majesty, a fluid and inconspicuous inventiveness, and a disposition subject to occasional weakness. Still, “Weather to Fly” is undoubtedly one of the most sublime and heart-rending things they’ve done since “Asleep in the Back” in 2001, and “The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver” rises to the high-water mark set by the band’s earlier epics like “Grace Under Pressure”. “The Fix”, too, is a fantastic Bacharach-esque duet with Sheffield singer/songwriter Richard Hawley that also bears the stamp of Ennio Morricone.
In Garvey’s own words, The Seldom Seen Kid is about “Love, loss, birth, death, dads, lads and a celebration of friendship by 5 very old friends,” and, in truth, it does sound like a celebratory record. Thankfully, though, it’s one that we can all get in on and enjoy, as Elbow has once again proved that it’s a band that’s looking forward and doing things in its own inimitable way.