Elbow‘s debut album, Asleep At The Back, earned them a Mercury Music Prize nomination and a band of loyal followers. It also earned them the unenviable “new Radiohead” tag on account of the fact that they sounded a bit morose.
Two years on, the follow up has been produced and the first impression is that things haven’t got much better in Guy Garvey’s world. This is an album of deep melancholy, filled with painfully sad, deeply intense songs. It’s also one of the finest records to have been released for a long time.
Cast Of Thousands is definitely a “grower” though. There’s nothing with the immediacy of Powder Blue or Newborn, and the first few plays tend to wash over the listener without leaving much of an impression. However, the band have cut down on the prog-rock noodling that marred their debut and this is a much more satisfying listen.
Opening track Ribcage starts off quiet and bleak with Garvey whispering, “We pissed in their champagne didn’t we?” before begging to “pull my ribs apart and let the sun inside”. After a few minutes the London Gospel Community Choir appear perfectly on cue, bringing to mind Blur‘s finest moment Tender. The effect is nothing less than hypnotic.
Elsewhere there’s the tribal drums of Snooks (Progress Report) and the jazz-tinged I’ve Got Your Number, but the highlights of the album are the ballads. Fugitive Hotel is simply beautiful, it’s wistful melody highlighting the pain of the lyrics. Even better is the heartbreaking Switching Off. Over a fragile backing, Garvey ruefully sings, “Is this making sense, what am I trying to say?” before declaring, “You, the only sense this world has ever made.” It would be a heart of stone that isn’t touched by this song.
The band save the standout track for near the end of the album however. The extraordinary Grace Under Pressure features, as the album title suggests, a cast of thousands on backing vocals including Jimi Goodwin from Doves, Manchester band Alfie and the entire crowd at Glastonbury 2002. As the song’s momentum builds and builds, the gospel choir kicks in again and we’re left with what is probably the pivotal line of the album: “”e still believe in love, so fuck you.”
Cast Of Thousands is a remarkable album and a massive leap forward from Asleep At The Back. It should be the album that establishes Elbow as a major British band, but even if it doesn’t, they’ve still produced one of the best records of the year.