In Brief: The Seldom Seen Kid‘s still their best work, but it’s commendable that Elbow didn’t try to repeat it, instead giving Rocket its own aura of aged beauty.
“Why in the heck would a band name itself Elbow? Makes me think of macaroni.”
That was my first thought several years ago, when I first heard of the Mancunian band Elbow. (It was also the first time I’d heard the word “Mancunian”, which as it turns out means they’re from Manchester, England, but there was that initial bit of confusion when I saw a picture of the band and said “Hmmm, they don’t look Chinese.”) It seems like such an unassuming thing to name a band, but it turns out they got the idea from a TV character who lauded the word as the most sensuous in the entire English language. Not because of its meaning, but just because of the way it sounds when you say it. Which led to my next thought: “They must pronounce it differently, what with their Mancunian accent and all.”
What I found out is that it “sensuous” is an apt descriptor for Elbow’s approach to music. Consider an analogy in which straight-up rock & roll is overt sexuality. This being rock & roll, I’m sure it’s not too much of a stretch. Now consider the type of music that Elbow plays, which can be broadly described as “rock”, but if you went in expecting a lot of loud guitar riffs and heavy drum beats to thrash around to, you’d come out feeling just as teased as you would if you expected sex and only got foreplay. Or maybe even just some harmless flirting. Your perception of what just happened would likely be quite different if you were expecting sex, but if you were in it just to enjoy the sensuality, the subtle hints at what more could possibly be there without any need to be blunt and overt about it, that could be quite enjoyable. As a band, Elbow is capable of going full-throttle when the situation calls for it, but that’s rarely their mode of operation, since they usually opt to softly caress the sonic canvas with sounds that slowly build up to breathtaking crescendos, or sometimes that just tease around the edges of full-formed melodies and rhythms. That they’re able to be so minimal in their construction and yet so open with their emotions is what sets them apart from a horde of other British bands all trying to strike the same chords with listeners that Coldplay has tried to hit so brazenly on album after album, and that Radiohead has spent the better part of the last decade subverting. It’s a bit of a cliché to bring up those same two bands whenever Elbow is mentioned, but those are the go-to comparisons, so I have to identify them and dismiss them early so that we can get over what Elbow is not and discuss what they’re really, really good at instead.
Build a Rocket Boys! is Elbow’s fifth full length album, and one could probably view it as the first follow-up record they’ve delivered with bigger expectations weighing it down. The Seldom Seen Kid, released in 2008, was the band’s most easily accessible album by a long shot, yielding the massive anthems “Grounds for Divorce” and “One Day Like This” and a handful of other lovey-dovey songs that were more deliberate with their grooves and their hooks than a lot of previous Elbow songs. It brought me in as a new fan and made me curious enough to both revisit 2005’s Leaders of the Free World and dig further into their back catalogue. Seldom accomplished exactly what it needed to without feeling like an instance of selling out, I think. And now, at a stage in their career where a lot of bands would feel they had to prove themselves, Elbow smartly avoids copying and pasting from that album. Build a Rocket Boys! was designed to have a few of the anthems that got the band some attention the last time around, but overall, its sound is a bit of a retreat, lightening up the percussive grooves a bit and giving Elbow a chance to explore their “prog rock” side just a bit, while stripping down completely for a few of their starkest ballads as well. It’s a record that flows strangely and feels almost lumbering at first, but in time, it reveals its own sense of epic drama. As if to show that the newest fans to jump the bandwagon weren’t the only ones on their mind, the record actually opens with two of Elbow’s longest, and probably least radio-friendly, tracks to date before subtly bringing in some of the hook-laden, sing along stuff. They struck a good balance, I think, even if the end result is a set of songs with glaringly obvious peaks and valleys, almost as if the band was switching personalities back and forth.
What unifies Build a Rocket Boys! is its exploration of the passage of time. The Seldom Seen Kid stared depression and death square in the face at times, but Rocket pulls back a bit from that drastic endpoint to consider the fleeting nature of youth and the inexorable progression of age that leads us to want back the time we once squandered. It has to be intentional that it explores this theme in a largely unhurried fashion. That’ll definitely set Elbow apart from the younger upstarts in the biz, for whom rock music is about changing things NOW! and escaping from your boring life NOW! and not letting “the man” tell you what to do. Elbow’s members are practically elder statesman at this point, and I’d wager their music probably strikes the deepest chord with an audience closer to middle-aged. That’s not at all a slam on the band – it’s just an honest reflection of where they’re at and what they’re concerned with. And shoot, even their early albums could be slow and cumbersome, so to some degree, this is less of an issue of the musicians themselves aging, and more a statement of what makes Guy Garvey tick. Fortunately, even on the sparsest songs, when the rest of his band feels almost immaterial, Garvey’s husky, Peter Gabriel-doppleganger vocals are there to lend graceful weight to the words, and that makes Rocket a thoroughly thought-provoking album even on occasions when the music feels like a mere shadow of itself. It’s difficult to make good art that is also relatable on a heart level, but I think that is Elbow’s biggest strength.
1. The Birds
At eight minutes, this will be one of the most challenging tracks for the newcomers, but despite my Elbow fandom only being a few years old, the slow grace with which its melody unfolds made this my favorite track straight away. It’s methodical, even mechanical, the guitar stuck on a single note as the drums and bass lock into a mid-tempo groove. Guy Garvey croons about a flock of birds who remain the only witnesses to a secret love affair, having witnessed both its beginning and its bittersweet end. You’re nearly halfway through before there’s any change in the scenery, which for some is going to make the song aggravatingly repetitive, but I’m so swept away by its dramatic melody that I don’t seem to notice the minutes ticking by. But the bridge is where it really opens up – they bring in Craig Potter‘s electronic keyboards and a dark cello, which stubbornly saws away at the repeated statement of regret – “What are we gonna do with you? Same tale every time.” – until it finally gives way to a glorious, fully orchestrated crescendo. With Guy’s voice soaring over this highly emotional reprise of the song’s cold, calculated beginning, it all starts to make sense, in some mad sort of way. Could they have said all they needed to say here in four or five minutes, without repeating themselves so much. Probably? But are they just using the repetition to fill up dead space? Hardly. It’s one of few songs where each passage seems to bear repeating, as if this man is trying to reassure himself that only he and the birds really know what happened.
2. Lippy Kids
It’s sort of funny when a six-minute track feels like a bit of a breather. But we’re still far from the realm of the conventional, as Elbow chooses to craft the album’s title track as one of its most tranquil, icy ballads, getting intentionally trapped in another repeating cycle of a single note, this time coming from the keyboard, while guitar and bass play very mild supporting roles, and drums are nowhere to be heard. There’s some contented whistling in the background, too. Not the king of thing you’d expect for a song about young punks running off at the mouth, but then, that’s not really what this song’s trying to address. Guy’s opening moan of “Lippy kids on the corner again” could certainly devolve into a diatribe on youth culture, but instead he seems to look at them almost wistfully, asking “Do they know those days are golden?” just as the shooting background vocals behind him begin to swell up. The song gets its biggest lift as it drops the album title – “Build a rocket boys!” which earns its exclamation point as Guy seems to deliver it with a wink and a thrust forward of his beer mug. It’s as if he wishes he could travel back in time and urge himself to enjoy the time instead of being in hurry to be old enough to do whatever adults were telling him he couldn’t at the time. The irony is that the kids probably won’t accept or appreciate the advice. Unless it involves bottle rockets. They’d probably like that.
3. With Love
Ready for something more upbeat? Well, your wish has been sort of granted. A nice little guitar riff rings out at the beginning – OK, it’s an acoustic one, but it’s catchy. And there are hand claps. Those drive the song even more than the drums do. That’s fun, right? I’m actually quite impressed that this song is so joyous and yet shows so much restraint at the same time. You get the feeling that the band developed a basic melody around a simple groove, and decided they didn’t need to pile on a bunch of layers in the studio to make it meaningful. There’s a bit of vocal layering that does come through later in the song, as the other guys interweave a second melody into an otherwise simple bridge, and there are little bits of piano here, bass there – just enough to let you know that everyone participated. The lyrics read like a long overdue love letter to the object of someone’s affections from years ago – the mention of dentures and pale skin makes it sound as if this is one of those things the guy’s got to get off his chest before one of them drops dead. Speaking of dropping, it feels like an entire gang of voices drops in from out of nowhere just to sing the repeating refrain of “WITH LOVE!” (Actually, it sounds more like “WIIIIIIH LOW!”, but they’re British, so I can excuse a dropped consonant or ten.)
4. Neat Little Rows
Alright, this time they’re not pulling any punches. If you came in looking for a song as pounding and visceral as “Grounds for Divorce”, then this just might do the trick. Mark Potter‘s opening guitar riff’s similarly grumbly, and the rhythm section locks into a solid groove – this time a wayward 6/8 that takes until the chorus to resolve into a slamming 4/4. Even with an obvious single, these guys don’t like to repeat a formula. Instead of the dissolution of a marriage, this time Elbow’s hung up on the dissolution of life itself – a man’s trying to get his affairs in order as he’s preparing for his life to end, it would seem, but the mere notion of leaving behind instructions for his own burial (“Lay my bones in neat little rows”) seems to disturb him a bit. The song wanders intentionally, breaking him down and building him back up over the course of its long, brooding bridge, as he realizes how much personal business he’s got left unfinished. If it weren’t for all the obvious talk about bones, it might be easy to miss how squarely this song stares death in the face, because the piano and Guy’s voice conspire to make the chorus ring out from the rooftops. It’s feel good sing-along if you’re not paying close attention. I find it fascinatingly weird, how well Elbow manages to mix angst with euphoria.
5. Jesus Is a Rochdale Girl
We switch quite suddenly from brash to subtle – and I mean way more subtle than we’ve experienced already. An almost excessively restrained acoustic guitar strums away in the background, as if they went out of their way to keep it at a low, distant volume, and the only sonic landmark to speak of is this keyboard riff that recurs after each verse, subbing in for a chorus that was intentionally left unwritten. Guy nearly whispers the song, as if making a mental list of all the little things in a man’s life that bring delight, that make him feel like he’s made it. The song title here threw me for obvious reasons at first, but having listened more carefully, it’s pretty obvious that he’s not saying Jesus is literally a girl; I think it goes more to the way he views all of the things he wants lined up – a nice house, someone who loves him, no lingering regrets, etc. – that he feels will “save” him, so to speak. It’s weird how these optimistic songs that represent youths looking forward to a full life ahead are so quiet and restrained, while the songs about elderly folks looking back feel much more full-blown, more cinematic. If that’s intentional, then I think they might have taken the restraint a tad too far with this one – because it’s out of my head the second it’s over with.
6. The Night Will Always Win
Though it can’t have been intentional, I find it incredibly amusing that the new albums by Elbow and R.E.M. – both released on the same day here in North America – seem to contradict each other with the titles of their sixth tracks. R.E.M.’s is called “Every Day Is Yours to Win”, and while I’ve got a forthcoming review to discuss that album in more detail, let’s just say that their song has an encouraging, lullaby sort of feel. Elbow’s song is appropriately opposed to that mood, once again taking repetition to its logical extreme (hello, single note from the keyboard, you’re really starting to bug me now) with this weary dirge that sends up the white flag at the sight of a setting sun. Guy’s just plain had it with a bad relationship, apparently – he’s tried to fight it out but figures it just isn’t in the cards for them, so he gives the night its victory, walking away all sour grapes as he cries “I miss your stupid face, I miss your bad advice.” (Or is it “battered vice”? You just never know with this bloke’s vocabulary.) The band’s going for stately with the orchestral fanfare that chimes in to punctuate the chorus with horns and timpani, but it’s too downtrodden and it never quite takes off. I feel like I’m repeating the same complaints I made about some of the tracks that sagged in The Seldom Seen Kid‘s bloated midsection, but you know, I’d take any of those over this. The album’s really starting to drag at this point.
7. High Ideals
Here comes the pick-me-up, right where you need it. At least, in terms of the music. Richard Jupp and Pete Turner lock into an understated, but pretty catchy groove on their drums and bass, respectively, while Mark Potter trots out this ringing, harmonic riff that seems to herald the coming of a king with four simple notes (followed appropriately by a short burst of beauty from a string section that seems to have been patiently waiting for just that moment). Guy’s digging into the family heirlooms, marveling at swords and bayonets and wondering how in the world his own life even remotely reflects the honor these men fought with when they were trying to push back against those upstart revolutionaries over in the Colonies. (We won. Ha ha!) Some of his best lyrics follow as he notes “Any noble fire that was burning in my chest is acid at the very best”, and later noting the irony of these vicious weapons being “passed down with the wedding rings”. The bridge takes a break from the haunting, pounding rhythm as he tries to settle himself down and remind himself of the lover by his side – theoretically all that he should need to live for. For a song that’s basically one massive guilt trip, they sure pull it off with grace and poise.
8. The River
We’re going even sparser now, if you can believe that. It’s merely Guy’s voice and a piano here, as far as my ears can tell. I’m not necessarily complaining about that this time, as the starkness of the song reveals a certain vulnerability, saying a lot more than the mere eight lines of lyrics that are present would initially indicate. In practice, it’s a simple thought – a man dreams of walking along the bank of a river, and he confesses his deepest secrets and long lost dreams to that river, which seems to weep with empathy for him. It’s within all of the pregnant pauses that the song’s real desperation comes through. That gives it a sympathetic sort of character, similar to “Friend of Ours”, which quietly closed out The Seldom Seen Kid. This one’s also pretty short, playing as more of an interlude or a stream of consciousness (pun intended), so it doesn’t quite carry with it the same expectations that a longer song would.
9. Open Arms
Here’s the emotional pick-me-up that you may have been hoping for earlier. This one’s got the perfect “grab a beer and sing along with your mates” quality to it, even though it might not seem that way at first with its plinking piano melody and the synthesizer gurgling underneath a quiet verse. You get the idea pretty quick when Guy seems to be extending a warm invitation to a sort of prodigal son – perhaps someone who’s given up on his dreams and doesn’t know that if he returns home, he’ll be accepted as is, no questions asked. (And there will be drinks… and repasts! Man, who doesn’t like repasts?) In case you missed it, the chorus makes it blindingly obvious when the drums kick in triple time and a host of voices cries out “We’ve got open arms for broken hearts – like yours, my boy! Come home again!” I think Elbow writes some of the best “bro-mance” songs out there, honestly. This one puts a big smile on my face, with my only minor complaint being that five minutes actually seems a bit short due to how abruptly that big, cascading chorus comes to an end. Maybe it was a conscious attempt to not repeat the seemingly endless fadeout of “One Day Like This”, but I wouldn’t have minded a few more reprisals.
10. The Birds (Reprise)
Heh. I just said “reprisal”, temporarily forgetting what came next. Somebody shoot me. As the crowd chatter from the previous song fades out, the band backs away completely, leaving the voice of an elderly gentleman to sing the chorus of the album’s first track, with only a solemn choir of “ooh”s to back him up. The effect is exquisite – like a sudden trip back in time that finds a man contemplating a situation he’d all but forgotten during the intervening years, and finding new wisdom in his old words.
11. Dear Friends
Elbow tends to close their albums with songs that feel like subtle afterthoughts, so I was quite surprised when this gentle but fully formed finale began to tug at my heartstrings. It’s understated, yet intricate – Mark Potter and Richard Jupp are intentionally playing rhythmic counterpoint to each other, with the guitar cleanly picking out an even rhythm of 4/4 while the drums lightly tap out 6/8 – which is the rhythm that the vocals and most of the band end up following. The effect is mesmerizing – like the pouring out of sunlight into a place previously accustomed to nothing but stormy weather. Guy’s practically switched roles from the one he played in “Open Arms”, offering up a toast to the friends who have kept him sane – “You are angels and drunks, you are magi.” It’s because Elbow lets some of their songs fall into such a dark, hopeless mood that the transition back out of it can be so powerful – and again I’ll bring up “One Day Like This”, which was so perfectly placed on The Seldom Seen Kid due to the moment of breaking free from depression that it represented. “Dear Friends” sounds nothing like it musically, of course, but it’s got a similar effect on my mood. The gentle wash of vocals as Guy fondly sings his final words to the buddies who pretty much brought him back from the dead, and the calm echo of horns as the song fades out, paint a perfect aural picture of the light at the end of the tunnel.
Build a Rocket Boys! is a grower, to be sure. It took three or four listens before anything other than “The Birds” really started to sink in, and I’m guessing most listeners will similarly find a track or two that stands out a great deal from the pack and fixate on those before the more sublime moments that occur during the album’s quieter passages start to sink in. This disc won’t be for everyone. But those who really take the time to get into it will find it richly rewarding, despite its occasional cumbersome missteps.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Birds $2
Lippy Kids $1
With Love $1.50
Neat Little Rows $1.50
Jesus Is a Rochdale Girl $.50
The Night Will Always Win $.50
High Ideals $1.50
The River $.50
Open Arms $1.50
The Birds (Reprise) $.50
Dear Friends $1.50
Guy Garvey: Lead vocals, guitars
Mark Potter: Lead guitar, backing vocals
Craig Potter: Keyboards, organ, backing vocals
Richard Jupp: Drums
Pete Turner: Bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.