In Brief: One of three Elbow albums that just narrowly missed out on a five-star rating. Still, there’s enough evidence here to help secure Elbow a spot on my “favorite bands” list.
As I’ve been going through and re-evaluating pretty much every CD in my vast collection over the past few months (and after this long, I’m only on E? This is gonna take forever!), I’ve come to realize that there are several also-rans who fall just outside my sort list of all-time favorite bands Usually this is because their overall body of work is strong but they lack that one definitive, five-star album that I just can’t get enough of. I guess I thought of Elbow as one of those bands up until re-listening to all five of their albums recently. I’ve had great respect for them ever since The Seldom Seen Kid got me into the band back in 2008, and I tend to pore over the little sonic details of their albums the way I would with a favorite band. But for some reason, it never quite registered with me until just a few weeks ago how much I’d fallen in love with their music. Elbow is generally a band that operates best at a slow pace, gradually building up lush, grandiose compositions and only rarely going for more conventional pop or rock hooks. This probably explains why they’re a band who can take a while to get into, and why they haven’t reached the same tier of popularity as many of their fellow British bands. Those who know and love Elbow seem to respect them as if they were benevolent aristocrats, bestowing their riches upon any audience willing to listen patiently. I’ve come to realize how much I’d love to see them perform live one of these days, and I’ve also developed a much stronger appreciation for the first album of theirs that I ever listened to – one that I almost completely misunderstood and overlooked the innate beauty of when I first heard it around six years ago.
Leaders of the Free World, released in 2005, is not a political album by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a strange title for them to have chosen, quite honestly. The title track certainly does its part to offer a big “Take That” to… well, name the world leader of your choice who fits the description. But the rest of the album could seemingly care less about Presidents and Prime Ministers. Guy Garvey just strikes me as one of those guys who would gladly leave all of his political worries in a state of suspended animation, if there were any romancing or caring for kindred spirits to be done. He’s got this self-deprecating and charming way of putting the people he loves on a pedestal, making them the kings and queens of his own little kingdom, and there’s seemingly no war that can’t be won in his world with an impassioned plea for understanding and sympathy. The rest of his band, while capable of aggression, often expresses it in the form of thick grooves rather than ragged riffs and blistering solos. But they’re equally capable of stunning musicianship in the gentle moments, where acoustic guitar, piano, and strings all spill vivid colors on to the canvas. This album, for the most part, moves between such moments with impressive style and grace. Only two or three songs on Leaders will rock your speakers… but the bulk of it may well melt your heart.
As noted above, Elbow hasn’t released an album yet that I’d award five-star status to, but all of their last three albums (this one, The Seldom Seen Kid, and Build a Rocket Boys!) come darn close. Of the three, while Seldom is probably their most mainstream pop-friendly record and Rocket probably contains the largest concentration of my personal favorite Elbow songs, Leaders might just be the most consistent from track to track. Its highlights aren’t as deeply ingrained in my subconscious as those from the later albums, but I can’t really think of a weak moment on the album (unless you count the closing track, which is really just a miniature epilogue and not really designed to bear the weight of a full song anyway). I guess you could say it’s a happy medium as far as Elbow albums go, and in their world, that thankfully doesn’t have to mean “mediocre”. Going back any earlier than this (which I do occasionally, but it’s admittedly difficult) will earn you a highly inconsistent mix of stunning highlights and bafflingly weird experiments, so I’d say this is as good a place to start as any if you’re new to the band. For me it marks the point in the band’s history where they really started to hit their stride.
1. Station Approach
It took me years to realize it, but this song encapsulates everything I love about Elbow. All of the ingredients are there in a combination I’m not sure I’ve ever observed in a single one of their songs. Delicate acoustics? Check. Right there at the beginning of the song, with Mark Potter‘s acoustic guitar picking out the rhythm three lovely piano chords from his brother Craig Potter forming a bridge for the end of that melody to loop back around to the beginning. Layered repetition? Check. Guy Garvey’s lead vocal varies between a beautiful verse and an almost monotonous bridge that repeats until the two dovetail gracefully at the song’s climax. Solid groove? Check. When the drums hit halfway through the song, they hit hard. Slight progressive rock influence? Check. Perhaps the most defining element of the song – that extra measure thrown in by the piano gives the song an unorthodox time signature (10/4, I guess?), despite the fact that it feels like a solid four on the floor and it inspired everything from light toe-tapping to heavy head-bobbing. At least when I’m alone in the car. Affectionate, nostalgic lyrics that are distinctly British in their delivery? Double check. It’s practically an ode to Guy’s hometown, a place he feels such an intimate familiarity with that he makes this observation “Coming home, I feel like I designed the buildings I walk by.” And it’s so classically Elbow when he delivers a playful little jab that few frontmen in rock music could pull off: “You little sod, I love your eyes.” You know how it is when you’re such close friends with someone that all of the witty banter and insults that an onlooker might find offensive instead come across as affectionate and charming. As the song hits its crescendo and he croons “Be everything to me tonight”, that’s exactly what Elbow is managing to be for me.
2. Picky Bugger
Urbandictionary.com tells me that “bugger” means something rather rude in British slang. Of course, that’s OK coming from Elbow because it means it’s secretly affectionate. I guess. Anyway, no point focusing on the title, because while this song is one of Elbow’s more sinister, there’s nothing in the lyrics that would be offensive on either side of the Atlantic. It’s actually quite clever, with the band intentionally subverting their penchant for lush arrangement by employing a string section but making them pick out all the notes, which gives the song a nervous, tiptoeing sort of feel. It’s a song that, rather than getting up in your face and starting a fight, chooses instead to subtly poke you on the shoulder and then look the other way and act innocent as soon as you turn around to see who’s pestering you. It’s appropriate for a song that’s all about “Kicking up mischief and feeding the fire”, and putting a “little fish” in its place after observing that all of its fighting to swim upstream is rather futile.
3. Forget Myself
One of the two big singles from Leaders, this one proudly comes stomping in with a rattling guitar riff and a rhythm designed to get an audience clapping along. It’s a big, busy ode to urban weirdness, and possible to Guy’s love/hate relationship with the denizens of his hometown. His flair for alliteration and odd imagery is quite arresting: “They’re pacing Piccadilly in packs again/And moaning for the mercy of a never come rain/The sun’s had enough and the simmering sky/Has the heave and the hue of a woman on fire.” It’s surprisingly catchy and singable despite the verses being such tongue-twisters – of course, the big group vocal in the chorus doesn’t hurt at all. There’s enough of an edge to this that a casual fan of both Elbow and Doves could probably get the two confused on this one. However, it’s the arrangement that tips off the more careful listener, because throwing a mandolin into a big, weighty rock song is such an Elbow thing to do.
4. The Stops
Most of Elbow’s albums have these sparse, acoustic songs that seem to unfold slowly and have plenty of cavernous space within them. For whatever reason, Leaders seems to flow more logically from the “big” songs into this sort of stuff and back. Track 4 seems like a good time to unleash a quiet highlight such as this one (compared to other albums where such things might show up a bit too early), and this one’s definitely one of my favorite Elbow ballads. Mark Potter‘s acoustic guitar is almost completely confined to minor key in the verse, except for this one point where it breaks out of both the scale and the key to hit this major C chord, which gives it a striking melodic effect due to the note it causes Guy to land on. The shift from there into the chorus and back is just brilliant in terms of how it weaves together two melodies with completely different personalities, and when the other guys chime in, singing “Don’t look down…”, it’s like discovering a clearing in the middle of a dense forest, and suddenly the sun is illuminating all of these bright, autumnal colo(u)rs. The lovestruck melody fits one of Garvey’s most twitterpated lyrics, as he happily croons: “Keep staring like you’ve never seen the stars/If you need me to remind you who you are/Little blossom, there’s the shiniest soul/Just behind those eyes.” I’m still mystified at how I managed to miss the awesome beauty of this song the first few times I heard it.
5. Leaders of the Free World
A short interlude leading into this song, in which the band seems to debating the right drum pattern to use, results in a bit of confusion when the one they ultimately go with is a bit slower (and arguably, more seductive) than the one they were fooling with in between songs. For some reason, this one always felt like it was just sort of slinking by when it needed to be this big, loud, hulking monster of a song that puts a corrupt politician in his place. Maybe Elbow just does the “protest song” thing differently than I’d expect, with a bit more mystery and subversiveness to it than, say, Green Day. It’s definitely a showcase for the rhythm section – Richard Jupp‘s rhythm may be steady and repetitive, but the way he locks in with bassist Pete Turner is what really gives the song some backbone. Here Guy plays the role of an everyman sick of working his rear off with little to show for it, so one day he decides to run a complaint up the flagpole and see who salutes it. “Periscope up, I’ve been looking for a ladder/I need to see the Commander in Chief”, he demands, “And remind him of what’s been passed on to you and me.” One could assume that this is about some issue unique to British politics, but technically, their Commander in Chief is the Queen, so who could they be referring to? “Passing the gun from father to feckless son” gives us a pretty good hint in the song’s vamp (which, in true Elbow fashion, overlaps beautifully with the chorus from earlier). Remember, this was 2005. Recall who was drawing a lot of ire from a good chunk of the world’s population back then? I’m not sure what that has to do with a Brit’s working conditions, so maybe I’m interpreting this all wrong, but either way, it stings a bit, which is unusual for an Elbow song.
6. An Imagined Affair
This one has just enough of a slow, measured feel to it to be slightly tedious, but it’s got enough gentle grace to it that I don’t tend to mind it too much. Consider it a gentle segue between the two sides of the record. It’s exactly what it says in the title, a quiet little reflective piece in which Guy finds a nighttime of illicit carousing turning into a morning of regret, leading him to do the walk of shame before his latest tryst’s husband gets home. Sounds a bit like a Dave Matthews Band song, doesn’t it? Except that it’s more about the sobering light of day than the hedonistic wee hours preceding the dawn. Leave it to Elbow to describe such a thing in their own starkly beautiful way: “So lost in the sound of her voice/I don’t even hear the words/When she says, ‘Come on get out, the past will find us out/Come on, get out please/And don’t breathe a word’… She brings the morning.” Turns out that this is all a scenario he made up in his head while sitting at the bar, having one too many to drink, and being too inept to actually make said affair happen in reality. Probably a good thing. But it’s a sobering (pardon the pun) exploration of what could have been and how it would have felt afterwards.
7. Mexican Standoff
This would be the other big single. You know what else Guy Garvey apparently likes to imagine? Beating the crap out of the guy who got the girl he wishes he could get. I hadn’t realized it before, since this song and “An Imagined Affair” are so musically different from each other, but there’s the connecting thread: Wishing you could be with someone you can’t be with. This song examines a confrontation that society’s double standards would lead us to call a “catfight” if it were about the jealousy between two women. But instead of ever coming to blows, it’s all communicated non-verbally, with body language going back and forth between the two guys that practically begs, “You wanna start something?” Inwardly, Guy isn’t sure if he does wanna start something. He just sort of wishes, somewhat humorously, that the guy would conveniently wind up dead: “Your sweet reassurances don’t change the fact/That he’s better looking than me/Yeah, he’d look ideal ‘neath the wheels of a car.” All of this is played out against a muscular rhythm of 6/8 with a dark, brooding guitar riff that ascends rather unnervingly up the scale, and they even throw in some Spanish handclaps for flavor. If you liked that effect when Coldplay used it on “Cemeteries of London”, then you should definitely check out how Elbow did it three years prior – I love that Coldplay song and all, but this one’s about five times as bad@$$.
8. The Everthere
This song about growing old gracefully is so flawlessly executed that I’m almost disappointed they didn’t save it for Build a Rocket Boys! It’s perhaps easily overlooked, since the big fiery moments on Leaders have all passed now and it’s a slow, easy coast from here to the finish line. But overlooking it would be a shame, since the Potter brothers have built another lush framework of acoustic fingerpicking and sparse piano for Guy to croon on top of, and he does so with a reserved sense of awe, wondering if he could ever love someone enough – or be loved enough – for them to be always present for each other through the decidedly unsexy process of aging and forgetting things and taking forever to do things. Clearly this is a guy who doesn’t plan on flaming out early like some rock stars: “If I lose a sequin here and there/More salt than pepper in my hair/Can I rely on you when all the songs are through/To be for me the everthere?” This one’s so effortlessly classy, it could almost give “Mirrorball” (my all-time favorite Elbow song) a run for its money.
9. My Very Best
Now we snap back to being young, single, and unsure if we’re cut out for the whole relationship thing. This mid-tempo, string-drenched number, finds Guy reeling from a rough breakup but trying to do the whole “stiff British upper lip” thing, since he finds it irksome that his ex and her little friends are all whispering about him like he was the victim of some horrific accident. He speaks out to prevent his eulogy from being written prematurely: “Keep your sympathy, I don’t need the healing to start/You’ve gone, gone and made a beautiful hole in my heart.” The lyrics are some of Garvey’s finest, a cut above the usual take on the over-treaded territory of unrequited love. I just think they need more of a poignant arrangement to really make them work – the melody here slides by a bit too casually, even if the vocal performance is fine as always.
10. Great Expectations
Another brief “messing about in the studio” interlude leads into this one, which briefly upsets the mood as it interrupts the flow between two of the album’s slower songs. This one is the understated emotional climax of the album, its quiet piano melody once again intertwining beautifully with the acoustic guitar to create the tranquil feeling of a starry night. There are times when I think it should come to a bigger crescendo than it does (or else it risks being overshadowed by “The Stops”, which has a similar mood and more of a layered sound to it), but then there are other times when I think it’s an excellent note for the album to end on. (Which it doesn’t, but I like to pretend it does.) It seems to be an ode to a lasting marriage, one with its quirks and little things to fight over, but with a solid bedrock of understanding and affection beneath it, which leads Guy (who is ever the Romeo on this album) to quip, “Yours was a face with a grace from a different age… You were the sun in my Sunday morning.” Personally, I’d have shuffled the tracklisting a bit to put “The Everthere” and this one back to back – the effect is much more striking when the mind starts to weave its own little narrative about these two elderly lovebirds looking back on their lives.
11. Puncture Repair
There’s nothing bad about this strange little coda of a song, per se… it just feels a bit tacked on and anti-climactic. Over nothing but a wandering piano melody, Guy sings a short, heartfelt ode to a friend who he leaned on for support. There are a few lines here that perhaps speak volumes about a man’s pride and how much it reveals of his love for someone if he can actually admit his failings to that person: “I regularly hurt, but never say.” It’s an interesting starting point for a song, but it ends on a unresolved note and leaves me longing for more. All one needs to do to understand why I expected more here is to compare it to the other Elbow album finales: The early highlight “Scattered Black and Whites” from Asleep in the Back, the stark tear-jerker “Friend of Ours” from The Seldom Seen Kid, or my personal favorite, the lovely dedication to “Dear Friends” at the end of Build a Rocket Boys! I guess it could be worse. At least this isn’t “Flying Dream 143”, which came at the end of Cast of Thousands and which made no sense whatsoever.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Station Approach $1.75
Picky Bugger $1.50
Forget Myself $1.75
The Stops $1.75
Leaders of the Free World $1.25
An Imagined Affair $.75
Mexican Standoff $1.75
The Everthere $1.75
My Very Best $1
Great Expectations $1.25
Puncture Repair $0.25
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.