It’s a long old road from overlooked artists to national treasures. Just ask Elbow – years spent toiling away, seemingly unappreciated, finally paid off in 2008 when their fourth album The Seldom Seen Kid won the Mercury Prize, and sent them into arena-sized levels of stardom.
Yet for the last few years, it’s been hard to escape the belief that Guy Garvey and company have been treading water a bit. Albums like The Take Off And Landing Of Everything and Little Fictions had the usual lovely Mancunian wistfulness, while 2019’s Giants Of All Sizes was brilliant in parts, but felt claustrophobic, as if the weight of both personal and political issues was threatening to engulf the band.
Happily, Flying Dream 1 seems like a bit of a reset. There’s a nod back to that breakthrough album in a track named The Seldom Seen Kid, and there are deliberately no big anthemic tracks like One Day Like This and Grounds For Divorce. Instead, the album’s quiet, contemplative tones hark back to Elbow’s first album Asleep At The Back, while Garvey’s lyrical concerns focus mostly on love and relationships.
Written in isolation over lockdown, the band came together to record the album in the empty Theatre Royal in Brighton. Garvey has named albums like The Blue Nile‘s Hats and John Martyn‘s Sold Air as inspiration for Flying Dream 1, and there’s a similar restrained air to those classics to be found here.
It’s a welcome change of pace, although casual Elbow fans may bemoan the lack of obvious anthems. For everyone else though, this is an album to luxuriate in – most of the songs are built around piano, and there’s a variety of instruments popping up, including mellotron, saxophone and clarinet. The occasional appearance of the London Contemporary Voices choir adds to the cosy atmosphere.
As ever, there is much delight to be found in Garvey’s lyrics – he remains a wordsmith of unerring quality, whether it be conjuring up images of “weary kids in bottle green, same gates as the ancient scholars”, or reminiscing about watching Brookside as a child, captivated by “Sue Johnston in corduroy and marigolds” in the nostalgic Calm And Happy. It’s an album full of wistful reminiscences, but it never slips into cornball drippiness.
Garvey’s ability to tug at the heartstrings remains unparalleled. The most moving track on Flying Dream 1, The Seldom Seem Kid, resurrects the memory of his friend Brian Glancy, imagining him dancing with Garvey’s wife at their wedding (“He’d steal you for dancing, and you’d lend him your arm, and I’d stooge for your laughing”). It’s a beautiful, bittersweet track that slots easily in the pantheon of Elbow greats.
Elsewhere, Elbow’s brand of bluff Northern sentimentality is on display in songs like Six Words and What Am I Without You, while Only Road’s ode to contentment and commitment (“I’ve never been so sure that I was right where I should be in my whole life”) is a beautifully understated highlight of the album.
After providing regular moments of succour during the pandemic with their beautiful series of Lockdown Sessions, it seems only right that Elbow should welcome the light back in with an album which often sounds like a salve for the soul. Although there are unlikely to be any tracks which will prove to be a ubiquitous presence in our lives, such as One Day Like This was, Flying Dream 1 is, in many respects, a typical Elbow album – warm, comforting and sincere. It’s also a record that many of us need after the last two years.