There's not a lot of squall in Elbow frontman Guy Garvey's solo debut, but there are more than enough promising moments to justify this eclectic venture.
In many ways, it's hard to believe that Guy Garvey hasn't released a solo record until now. As the frontman of Elbow, the finest of Northern England's rock groups to rise to fame in the past two decades, Garvey has forged an identity that's as unique to himself as it is inextricable from the identity of Elbow. His vivid and wordplay-heavy lyrics are among the strongest in the rock pantheon (see The Seldom Seen Kid's con game ode "The Fix": "The redoubtable beast has had pegasus pills / We'll buy him a patch in the Tuscany hills / And the vino de vici will flow like a river in spring"). His voice is able to oscillate back and forth between tenderness ("Great Expectations") and grand drama ("The Birds") with dazzling ease. In the context of Elbow, Garvey is a natural fit; however, because of how distinct a voice he is, it's easy to imagine that he could go out by his lonesome and craft something equally as memorable as the Elbow catalogue.
Courting the Squall marks the first time Garvey has taken up that opportunity. The LP comes not long after the release of Elbow's Lost Worker Bee EP, a four-track offering from the band that follows the 2014 studio outing The Take Off and Landing of Everything. With Garvey deciding to make a solo album comes the inevitable volley of speculations about what his move means for Elbow. "Why now?" "What makes this music 'Guy Garvey solo' rather than 'Elbow?'"
Regrettably, many of these are fueled more by easy and unnecessarily incendiary conjecture. In his NME review of Courting the Squall, Mark Beaumont argues:
Solo albums from singers in still-operational bands are the musical equivalent of emotional abuse. They say to their bandmates ‘I don’t need you like you need me’. They contain the unspoken threat that the singer might bugger off at any moment if a younger and better-looking career comes along… They’re a musician slipping off their wedding ring, sidling up to a coy public and explaining how their band doesn’t understand them.
These sentences, which form part of the opening paragraph of Beaumont's review, are hopelessly vague and without referent, creating eye-catching controversy where there truly is none. Anyone who has tracked Garvey's career up until now, particularly his role in Elbow, will know that he is the spitting image of Northerner camaraderie, the kind of rock star who you're more likely to rub shoulders with at a local pub (in Garvey's case, Manchester) rather than a ritzy, celeb-studded VIP lounge. As Garvey put in his his announcement of Courting the Squall: "Elbow graciously gave me some time to write a solo album. I’ve wanted to try for years and I’m really proud of it." Far from a singer out to prove he's better than his bandmates, Garvey is simply trying his hand at new material. He is certainly level-headed enough to know that being in one musical group does not amount to shackling himself to that format ad infinitum. (In fact, Elbow guitarist Mark Potter's new band the Plumedores will open for Garvey at two UK gigs in December, which means Garvey isn't the only one branching out.)
Furthermore, from the sound of Courting the Squall, Garvey was never bent on leaving the Elbow sonic too far behind. A few of these songs could have been Elbow b-sides, with some even evoking the Lost Worker Bee EP, namely "Harder Edges". Some familiarities notwithstanding, Courting the Squall is a clear if not entirely clean break from the music of Elbow, one that certainly affirms Garvey's ability to craft a solo vision that's compelling in its own right. In kicking things off with the funky "Angela's Eyes", Garvey simultaneously re-asserts his goodwill and shows the listener that he's got some new tricks up his sleeve. With its hip-shakin' rhythm and spiky synth solo, "Angela's Eyes" sounds like it could steam up a rock club in the late hours of the night. But, of course, this is a song written by Garvey, which explains why the tune's lyrics emphasize monogamy rather than carefree love ("I'm a believer in a perfect girl / In a world of brazen lies / Yes I believe / In Angela's eyes"). Hearing Garvey declare his love so singularly, one can't help but be reminded of his most popular lyrical achievement to date, the wedding staple "One Day Like This".
"Belly of the Whale" later picks up on the energy of "Angela's Eyes", using a small yet suave horn section to match its groovy bassline. Garvey hasn't dabbled in big band and jazz all that much, but if Courting the Squall is any indication, he's capable of putting a unique twist on the genres. On "Electricity", a duet with the American singer Jolie Holland, Garvey slips comfortably into the role of late night lounge singer, with light brushes of cymbals adding to the track's smoky atmosphere. When Garvey indulges his jazzy impulses, this album is at its most successful.
The title Courting the Squall is misleading, however. If Garvey truly is standing up to a squall here, then it's a tame one; the majority of these ten tunes are in the mid-tempo range, with "Angela's Eyes" being the most upbeat number. Garvey was wise in putting the track first, as it inaugurates the record in an attention grabbing fashion, yet at the same time it also becomes misleading. The follow-up to "Angela's Eyes", the title track, immediately brings things down several notches; "Harder Edges" doesn't pick things back up until its home stretch with the introduction of horns. "Unwind", "Juggernaut", and "Three Bells" further add to the casual pace of the album. Fortunately, the climax of "Broken Bottles and Chandeliers" and the march-like pace of "Yesterday" offer much needed respite, as well as some of the LP's sharpest lyrics ("I'm a diligent village idiot toeing the line but watching for a sign"). Sadly this doesn't stop much of Courting the Squall from feeling monochromatic, even languid at times. Reserved introspection has done Garvey well in the past, but here it's too much of a good thing.
It's strange, then, that "Electricity", Courting the Squall's slowest moment, stands out as one of its best, due mostly to its noirish mood. "Electricity" doesn't succeed without reservations, though: in a curious move production-wive, Garvey and Holland's voices are diminished in the mix, as if they were coming from a weary old Victrola. This effect was no doubt intended, likely to further emphasize the old-timey lounge singer image, but it's an unnecessary tactic. Garvey's croon and Holland's lovely pipes ought be front and center, but in over-committing to the bit behind "Electricity" Garvey does himself a disservice -- even though, in the end, it's still a charming number.
Those familiar with Garvey or Elbow could have seen these issues coming: sluggish mid-tempo, after all, is what mires the first two Elbow outings (Asleep in the Back and Cast of Thousands). These flaws, however, are not entirely a product of past songwriting baggage; Garvey has taken great stride to distinguish this from anything he's done before, and he succeeds in doing so. Courting the Squall is a solid first solo outing for this music veteran, one that reveals an important truth: no matter how much experience you have making music, if you take the risk on something new, you're going to find that there's plenty still to learn, and even more to improve on.