Quiet, steady and without much fuss, Elbow have gradually developed into one of the country’s finest bands. From their debut Asleep At The Back to 2005’s magnificent Leaders Of The Free World, each Elbow album has shown more depth and emotion than most bands could hope to display in their whole careers.
The Seldom Seen Kid keeps the band on this upward trajectory. This time, keyboard player Craig Potter has taken over production duties and while he’s not installed any major changes in the band’s sound, there’s a freshness about the album that sounds instantly appealing.
As ever with Elbow, serious subjects dominate. Several members of the band have recently become fathers, and the album is dedicated to their close friend Bryan Glancy, a Mancunian singer/songwriter who died in 2006. Of course, there’s also the usual Guy Garvey ruminations on love, loss and relationships, written as usual with his heart firmly on his sleeve.
Starlings sets the tone from the off, punctuated by big blasts of noise, until it settles down for Garvey to tell a beautifully written tale of pursuing a would-be lover: “You are the only thing in every room you’re in, I’m stubborn, selfish and too old”. The self-deprecation runs deep (“I’m asking you to back a horse that’s good for glue”) and Garvey’s emotion-filled vocals make it all desperately moving.
There’s an unlikely flamenco feel to The Bones Of You – boisterous, jostling and loud, but with that touch of vulnerability never far away, while the heavy industrial crunch of Grounds For Divorce could be the most rocky thing that the band have ever done. As ever, Garvey’s lyrics shine on the latter, perfectly describing the threatening yet homely feel of an underground pub.
Although the feel of the album is very recognisable, there are moments of musical departure, such as the almost jaunty ballad with Richard Hawley, The Fix. Hawley and Garvey pair up to make the perfect alcohol-sodden team planning a horse-riding scam. As the duo swap lyrics like “the redoubtable beast has had pegasus pills, we’ll buy him the patch in the Tuscany hills”, Hawley’s unmistakable ’50s style guitar riffs echo all around.
The whispered ballad of Mirrorball is more traditional Elbow territory, as Garvey ruminates on a new arrival to the family (“all down to you, everything has changed”) while the jazzy mid-paced feel of An Audience With The Pope almost feels sinister. Fans of the big ‘stadium’ moment won’t be disappointed either by One Day Like This, a spellbinding, soaring, uplifting 6 and a half minutes that owes rather a lot to Grace Under Pressure from Cast Of Thousands.
There is definitely a quiet, stately sort of elegance to Elbow’s music, as perfectly encapsulated in a song title such as The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver, and especially in the closing elegy to Glancy, Friends Of Ours. The way Garvey murmurs “love you mate” as a string section hovers nearby is enough to break the hardest of hearts.
They may never become massive in the way that their mistakenly compared contemporaries Coldplay have become, but it’s likely that stardom would sit uneasily upon their shoulders. Instead, cherish this group of resolutely unstarry men from Manchester for what they are – one of this country’s hidden treasures.