Guy Garvey and guitarist Mark Potter made friends at Bury College, Lancashire as teenagers with the other members joining in short order, local lads all. Determined to concentrate on lyrics and harmony the early Elbow released a succession of classy EPs – The Noisebox, The Newborn and Any Day Now, all of which were evidence of their charisma. Radio friendly in the extreme and with solid studio experience to add a technically savvy polish to whatever they essayed Elbow’s debut disc Asleep in the Back was a statement of intent, packed with Garvey’s literate and thoughtful lyrics and ensemble playing that was positively old-school – in a very good way indeed. Try the Deluxe edition where rarities from The Noisebox EP and a live version of “George Lassoes the Moon” enhance a slew of stage performances and radio sessions. Certain tracks like “Bitten by the Tailfly”, “Coming Second” and “Newborn” are redolent of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, all sweeping along with strings and horns. Anyone who wants to discover the entire Elbow experience is well advised to seek this out.
Cast of Thousands follows in 2003 after a wildly successful Glastonbury performance.
Again the press was swift in lavishing praise, quite rightly, on the main event. “Fugitive Motel”, “Grace Under Pressure” and “Ribcage” are all gems. Gospel chorale and members of the Garvey family join in on what is now viewed as a classic slab of community conscious music.
The third album Leaders of the Free World is self-produced in Salford and spawns the heavily aired title track and the epic “Forget Myself.” This time Elbow provide string arrangements while Marius de Vries (Bowie, Annie Lennox, Blow Monkeys, Coldcut, Brian Eno and U2) adds his distinctive string magic as well. By now Elbow are also adept in the fields of video art form, working with The Soup Collective, and win praise for paying close attention to their idiosyncratic artwork. Everything is precise and thought through.
Then comes the explosion. The Seldom Seen Kid – this is where it all clicks. Released by Fiction in Europe and Geffen Records in the US the album debuted at number five and won the Mercury Prize. Entirely self-produced at Blueprint Studios this classic finds Elbow’s friend Richard Hawley adding his unmistakable sound to “The Fix”. Many of the other tracks have been used to soundbed or backdrop major TV shows and “One Day Like This” was heavily aired by the BBC to accompany footage from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The parent album has sold close to a million copies with aficionados raving about the masterful “Grounds for Divorce”, the choice strings and horns and the sheer joie de vivre and ambition of tracks like “The Bones of You” (which quotes from the standard “Summertime”) and the wit of “The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver.” The whole thing has been a vast success, then a sleeper and then re-emerged enabling it to chart across three different years.
The nostalgic reflections that invade the return to childhood roots on Build a Rocket Boys! are every bit as wondrous as the melancholia of previous discs. Garvey embarked on a kind of pilgrimage to meet Peter Gabriel at his Wiltshire home and was evidently inspired by that liaison. Elbow now enlisted the Halle Youth Choir and created a suite of grand piano stoked songs that had Garvey christened a kitchen sink poet laureate of his time. Certainly “Jesus is a Rochdale Girl” and “The Birds” have a vivid narrative but then Garvey has always been able to catch the listener unawares with a line that may seem mundane but actually speaks to the heart.
The compilation Dead in the Boot (another great title!) back references the debut Asleep in the Back and gathers a superb collection of nocturnal laments that are far too good to be considered as filler since they are better than most others acts best shots. Again, if this has slipped you by then we’d press you to discover it and marvel at the “The Long War Shuffle” where Garvey plays fine slide guitar and early nuggets like “Lucky with Disease” and “None One”.
And so to the present: The Take Off and Landing of Everything. A thoroughly mature and passionate affair that addresses real life changes Elbow are once more hitting on home truths with pathos and humour. An element of the writing here reflects the fact that Garvey did his work while commuting between New York and Manchester. Subtle and poised upon fine Northern wit this is another masterpiece that was recorded at Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Box with each member tracking their own contributions in isolation – an unusual method but one that adds mystery to the results and sounds equally extraordinary when viewed on a stage. In some ways this is a sparser disc than the others yet the songs have so much space to breathe in that the listener is reeled in with ease and soon immersed in the warmth if some wonderful music. We’re particularly liking “New York Morning” and “My Sad Captains” and boy do the melodies stick in the brain. Soulful, progressive and completely durable – this is the band at their best yet again. More power to the Elbow.
Words: Max Bell
Elbow fiddles with a battery of widescreen dynamics and slight prog rock tendencies, delivering an epic debut of Manchester miserablism that will likely gain comparisons to fellow Mancunian band Doves (rightfully) and Coldplay (wrongfully). Like Doves, Elbow has enough supple shadings and tasteful textures to hold interest without vocals. However, where you have dance producers at the core of Doves, you have a highly emotional songwriter at the core of Elbow. Despite constantly dipping into an overflowing well of sonic tricks (the non-wank variety), each of Guy Garvey's songs would be able to survive with a lone acoustic providing accompaniment. Judging from Garvey's rough-hewn voice, he could be forgiven for sinking into a misery-addled torpor; thankfully, that's not the case -- given enough instrumental prodding from his cohorts, Garvey's voice can soar and seethe with the best of them. Tally these qualities and you have a record that glides above the host of bands who prattle aimlessly about their pin cushion-frail souls. After all, Asleep in the Back is more about getting through and sustaining than it is flat-out moping or asking for a hug. The tempos might not ever exceed mid-level, and half of the songs might exceed five minutes, but the record is anything but a difficult listen or tough to wade through. When the acoustic strumming, piano twinkles, liquid basslines, and muted horns are this engaging and well arranged, it's difficult to wring yourself from the web. If you can only spare eight minutes to test drive the record, go straight to "Newborn," the sweeping centerpiece with enough catharsis and heavenly Talk Talk-informed organ that you'd swear it came from the second side of Catherine Wheel's Adam and Eve. Stacked against other debuts out of Manchester, theirs is no disgrace.
Words: Andy Kellman
There doesn't appear to be an Elbow consensus: they are their own band; they are the Coldplay it's OK to like; they are the Talk Talk for people who've never heard Talk Talk (or Catherine Wheel); they are somewhere between Supertramp and Superchunk; they are part of a succession of over-introspective, twaddle-peddling British rock bands. They are most of these things -- the positive things, at least -- at various points. On Cast of Thousands, Elbow's second album, the group does deserve to take its rightful place as one of the most respectable rock bands going. What separates this album from the debut isn't all that apparent on the surface. Downcast songs about relationships remain the stock in trade, but the sound has made natural advancements and the quality control is less prone to malfunctioning. In other words, they have followed through on whatever promise Asleep in the Back held; you could sense this would happen, just as you could sense that, after Lazer Guided Melodies, Spiritualized would make an even better record the next time out. However predictable, the minor differences add up to a lot. More so than ever, Elbow's greatest asset is that the band is capable of making big sounds without being bombastic or flashy. And they've tempered the characteristics that got them tagged as sad sacks, although that fact is mostly apparent in the lyrics ("place" rhymes with "virgin mother what's-her-face"; the payoff line in opener "Ribcage" goes "I wanted to explode, to pull my ribs apart and let the sun inside"). The only setback? Gospel choirs. Hopefully, at some point before they make their next album, they'll realize that their songs don't need background vocals from an entire congregation in order to feel redemptive -- or powerful. [V2 issued the album in the U.S. five months after the original U.K. release.]
Words: Andy Kellman
When Doves headed to the studio for the recording of their third album, 2005's Some Cities, they returned home to Manchester. With that kind of scenic inspiration and emotional attachment, Some Cities resulted in Doves' best of their career at that moment. It is mere coincidence that their musical mates, Elbow, have done the same for their third album, Leaders of the Free World. Such a coincidence is a bit comforting in the respect that Elbow do not stray from what they have previously done. Despite being cast as a gloomy bunch on their first two albums -- 2001's Asleep in the Back and 2004's Cast of Thousands -- Elbow trudge on as an emotional band. Singer/songwriter Guy Garvey doesn't wallow in failed relationships as much as he enjoys being cynical and playful about the world around him. Sure, Elbow's more melodic, pensive moments such as "The Stops" and "The Everthere" are classic heartbreakers, with piano-driven melodies lush in melancholic acoustic guitars and Garvey's somber disposition. Leaders of the Free World really comes to life when Elbow give in, allowing these songs to grow into something glorious. Album opener "Station Approach" and "Forget Myself" are brilliant examples of this. "Forget Myself" metaphorically points fingers at a media-obsessed culture that is equally blasé about its own issues. Garvey throws his hands in the air, sighing to himself to "look for a plot where I can bury my broken heart." The album's title track also criticizes a very questionable political system, demanding, "I need to see the Commander in Chief and remind what was passed on to me" as a storm of electric guitars mirrors an anxious, waxing delivery by the band itself -- "Passing the gun from father to feckless son, we're climbing a landslide where only the good die young." Elbow are a great band regardless of what it takes for them to find their footing. Leaders of the Free World is a bit more rock & roll than not, with guts and heart, because Elbow have finally embraced their powerful, surrounding space this time out.
Words: MacKenzie Wilson
In a world where even the generally mediocre likes of Snow Patrol can have honest to goodness mainstream pop success, it seems peculiar that Elbow have never broken through beyond a devoted cult following. (Admittedly, the fact that their new labels, Polygram's alt rock imprint Fiction Records in the U.K. and Geffen in the U.S., are their fourth and fifth, respectively, after stints on Island, EMI, and V2, may have a lot to do with their lack of mainstream attention.) Exploring the fruitful middle ground between early Radiohead's mopey art rock and Coldplay's radio-friendly dumbing down of the same, Elbow makes records built on a balance of things not often found together anymore: strange musical textures alongside immediately accessible pop song choruses, or unexpected left turns in song structure paired with frontman Guy Garvey's warm, piercing vocals. It's no surprise that Elbow are regularly compared to old-school prog rockers like Pink Floyd and Electric Light Orchestra: they're proof that records can be cool and commercial at the same time, an idea that's not particularly hip in this day and age. Yet a song like "Grounds for Divorce," which puts a sharp, wryly funny Garvey lyric against a clanging, Tom Waits-like arrangement and throws on one of the album's catchiest tunes for good measure, or "Some Riot," which filters a yearning, lovely melody for guitar and piano through so many layers of effects and processing that it can be hard to tell what the original instruments sounded like, isn't afraid to display its accessibility even on its most experimental numbers. At the album's best, including the spacious, atmospheric balladry of the opening "Starlings" (imagine if Sigur Rós could write a pop song as emotionally direct as Keane's "Everybody's Changing") and the potential radio breakthroughs of the soaring, semi-orchestral epic "One Day Like This" (complete with choral climax!) and the wistful "Weather to Fly," The Seldom Seen Kid is Elbow's most self-assured and enjoyable album so far. [The U.K. version added "We're Away" as a bonus track.]
Words: Stewart Mason
Build a Rocket Boys! is Elbow’s first release since winning the Mercury Prize with The Seldom Seen Kid. Following that multi-platinum behemoth is no easy task, particularly for a 20-year-old band whose modest, “aw shucks” demeanor makes Chris Martin seem like a braggart. On these 11 tracks, though, Elbow continues its ascent from cult band to stadium filler, skirting all but the outermost orbits of mainstream pop while focusing on innovative, lushly textured songwriting. Elbow has rarely sounded like anyone else, yet Build a Rocket Boys! draws enough parallels to hitmakers to make it relevant in 2011, finding some sort of left-field compromise between Snow Patrol’s arena anthems and Sigur Rós’ sonic exploration. At the center of the creative storm is Guy Garvey, who sings about the mundane in a way that elevates it to stadium grandeur. The lyrics are specific -- Garvey croons about childhood plans, middle-aged reality, and everyday people who aspire to something greater -- but the music is imaginative and open-ended, with guitars that fade into the ether and arrangements that include vintage organs, electronics, orchestral percussion, harmonies, and the echoing ambience of the recording studio itself. On “High Ideals,” the band locks into a globetrotting trip-hop groove, flirting with a Middle Eastern scale before cooling things off with mariachi horns. A gospel choir makes its way into the next song, “The River,” but the song's thick vocal harmonies are used sparingly, serving as a minimalist backdrop rather than a chest-swelling climax. Build a Rocket Boys! knows when to push forward and when to pull back, and its songs find the accessibility in out-of-the-box thinking without alienating either side of Elbow’s audience: the longtime fans who worry about losing their band to the mainstream, and the recent converts who climbed aboard after The Seldom Seen Kid's success.
Words: Andrew Leahey
Elbow recorded their sixth album at Real World Studios, making the connection between themselves and Peter Gabriel plain. Much of this connection comes from the husky, subdued rasp of lead singer Guy Garvey, but the band on a whole favors a similar kind of accessible art rock where the textures are lucid yet elliptical while the songs are sturdy and melodic, wearing their accouterments well. This blend helped make 2011's Build a Rocket Boys! into a sizable hit in their native Britain and throughout Europe, but The Take Off and Landing of Everything is better still, demonstrating that the band knows how to seize the spoils of success. This assurance -- relaxed and deliberate, confident enough to play up both melodies and cool, echoing abstractions in the production -- belies how much of the album was written in the wake of the dissolution of Garvey's long-term romantic relationship, but The Take Off isn't strictly a breakup album. Rather, it's a record of coming to term with middle age, finding that there is a birth that accompanies every death, joy to balance the sorrow, an understanding that comes with acceptance. Garvey conveys these issues in his lyrics but, as a band, Elbow reflect this comfortable reckoning with their own nature, letting sadness creep at the edges but favoring a warm, enveloping melancholy that turns the album into a soundtrack for healing, not wallowing.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine