Thursday, March 13, 2014

Elbow's Post-Rock Triumph

I go back a long way with Elbow, the Manchester band whose sixth album has come out this week. That statistic in itself seems amazing. They were "the most likely to" in the late 90s (alongside baggy survivors Doves) but their debut e.p. "Noisebox" featuring "Powder Blue" limped out on a small label in 1998, and it wasn't until 2001 that their long-delayed debut album "Asleep in the Back" came out. I'd seen them loads of times before then, and they were both different than other bands of the time and fitted in. It's worth recalling that their use of interesting sonics was already their on that debut E.P. so though the debts were there to Radiohead and especially "OK Computer", they were already exploring a different unfashionable terrain. Also, given that the other Manchester bands of the period were guitar bands like Nine Black Alps, Doves and Oceansize, they packed a reasonable sonic assault.

Yet over the years Elbow have not so much morphed into the stadium act and national treasure they are today, but slightly adapted the formulae that were there at the start. Here's a band, after all, whose second single was the heart on sleeve "New Born".  A band who has always been more than a sum of its parts, I don't think we particularly noticed singer Guy Garvey's lyrical eloquence at first - though we've always loved his slightly droll honeyed vocals, which have always had more width to them than Thom Yorke's and more earthiness than Chris Martin's. When Coldplay thundered onto the stage there was always a wonder whether the world had room for more than one post-Radiohead band, especially when Coldplay were so successful; but Elbow were always pursuing a different agenda.

That first album was painstakingly assembled after a number of disasters, and even includes the exact mix of "Powder Blue" from that original E.P. The band have always been aware of their sonic possibilities, and very early on that moved away from the rock template of fast bit/slow bit which has sustained millennial rock ever since the Pixies and Nirvana. Early Elbow showcase gigs often contained only five or six long songs, and though not many people mentioned the dreaded "prog rock" the people who got them liked that they had that more nuanced musicianship.

The two albums that followed on from their well regarded debut were more commercial, rockier in parts, but like a lot of bands during the decade, you felt that there might be a sense of diminishing returns, despite great songs like "Grace Under Pressure". The most important track from this period however came in"Station Approach" which opened "Leaders of the Free World." This beautiful song was picked as a favourite by non other than John Cale. Here was the Guy Garvey we'd come to know as a great northern story teller, nostalgic for the home town that him and the band could never quite come to leave (and that the "town" was both Bury and Manchester, and a certain mythical place of their childhood memories was part of the charm.) The Cale reference wasn't surprising, for Cale - particularly the mid-period sonorous ballad writer of "Music for a New Society" became another touchstone for Garvey's singing; not the kind of influence you'd find in Coldplay, however many times Eno produces them.

It was three years until their fourth album, which was self-produced and released via a new record label. "The Seldom Seen Kid" was the record that took Elbow to another level. Their songwriting had always been good, but here, you felt only Nick Cave was as consistently excellent, and whilst Cave will never be a mainstream love, Elbow had perfected the large stadium live set, whilst connecting with the audience far more intimately than other bands in that arena. In many ways the musical template that the band were now putting together behind Garvey was more "post rock" than "indie" or "alternative", where dynamics of the sound were manipulated to create a sonic canvas on which Garvey's northern poetry could gambol in surprising directions. Live this would expand into longer expanding crescendos whilst on record what might have been criticised for being "mid paced" in a lesser band, was increasingly intimate. This mix of the intimate and the expansive is the magic alchemy that I don't think any of their contemporaries have managed to perfect.

"The Seldom Seen Kid" mixed a knack for northern soap opera with a much wider sense of togetherness. A track hidden away towards the end of this album, "One Day Like This" was picked up by the BBC for its 2008 Olympic coverage, and though a minor hit it became Elbow's most recognisable song - a veritable anthem. In addition the album won that year's Mercury Prize.  The companion album, "Build a Rocket, Boys" came out to equally good reviews and sales, and by this time Elbow were an "event" band, appearing with the Halle orchestra or at Jodrell Bank, or, amusingly, having a beer brewed for them, by local Stockport brewery, Robinsons. Like a lot of much loved bands they have a very loyal local following, and yet this tight knit local band have a far more mixed following than the usual "football crowds" of the Roses or Mondays. At the same time Guy Garvey became more of a household name through fronting a radio show on Radio 6, where his good taste and dry manner became very popular. Knowing that you'd probably bump into him in Big Hands or the Temple of Convenience down Oxford Road highlighted the charm of a band that could remain local heroes whilst conquering the world.

The last band to breakout on any kind of scale from Manchester, their sixth album, "The Take Off and Landing of Everything" on a first listen refines the Elbow style even further. Finally there's the confidence to move away from anything remotely "rock" - ("Neat Little Rows" on the previous album was fun, but felt a little out of place) - into a multi-instrumental soundscape that perfectly suits them at this time in their career. Always adept at poignant tunes, some of the music is as beautiful as ever, and here the lyrics expand to talk of the changes in life, as a band gets into its forties. At the same time, Garvey the observer, finds new subjects following a sojourn in New York where he was invited to write a libretto. Musically the band have never sounded quite so subtle, and if on occasion in the past, their tendency for the big crescendo and trumpets and choir, has had elements of crowd pleasing about it, here the light and shade of the record seems carefully balanced. Always a good rhythm band, the slow songs are never entirely slow, the bigger songs, never too ungainly. Like Nick Cave's new Bad Seeds, recent Radiohead, and even the Coldplay of "Viva La Vida", Elbow have kept making vital rock records by bit by bit replacing the usual tropes of rock music with their own subtle colours. Over a decade and a half into releasing music, they remain a local triumph.

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