In Brief: First impression: Slooooooooow and really difficult to get into. After further listening: A bit more languid than Elbow’s usual, but not without its grand, anthemic moments, and its subtler bits that soothe the savage beast once they manage to get their hooks into you. Probably not a great place to start for new listeners, but a worthy addition to Elbow’s discography nonetheless.
For all of my pontificating in past reviews about how Elbow is the kind of band whose music you have to let sink in slowly, and for all of the elaborate analogies I could make about how you wouldn’t guzzle fine wine as if it were soda, or wolf down premium Swiss chocolate as if it were a Hershey bar, there are times when I just have to straight up admit that Elbow’s determined, measured slowness can get frustrating at times. I’m not about to say that the band’s sixth album, The Take Off and Landing of Everything, is a bad album for this reason. Like pretty much everything they do, it’s a pretty good record once you take the time to get into it. And they’ve always been the type of band with the maturity and grace to use immediate hooks sparingly and to make them really count where they are used, so to complain about a perceived lack of such hooks on an album like this would be to betray the entire history of a band that has been just on the cusp of becoming one of my personal favorites for a few albums now. But I’m not gonna beat around the bush. The Take Off and Landing of Everything (which I’m gonna start calling Take Off, just for the sake of brevity) is probably their most difficult album to get into since 2003’s wildly uneven Cast of Thousands. It isn’t an album for newcomers to the band’s sound – and it probably isn’t intended to be.
To some extent, it’s only fair to expect Take Off to be a downbeat and somewhat gloomy album, given that it was recorded in the wake of Guy Garvey ending a long-term relationship. I wouldn’t call it a “breakup album”, per se, since not all of it songs touch upon those themes of loss and heartache. But you can hear it in the deliberately weighted pace of most of its songs, which can seem like they take forever to unfold and don’t necessarily explode with the same sort of euphoric power that propels the band’s biggest singles. Put simply, this isn’t a “singles” record. There are a few tracks that I’d easily pull off of this album and add to a self-made compilation of the band’s best work, and a few of those have melodies that do stick in my head now that I’ve grown accustomed to them. But if you’re looking for another “One Day Like This”, “Forget Myself”, or heck, even another “The Birds” (which may be their longest and most repetitive song ever, but also one of their awesomest), you’re in the wrong place. The few tracks on this record that dare to approach “up-tempo” are buried deep within, and the one or two that bring anything resembling “rock” energy don’t do it in any conventional way, even for those accustomed to tracks like “Grounds for Divorce” or “Neat Little Rows” from their past records.
On the flipside, I can’t say that most of these tracks are sparse and acoustic, either. Jumping back and forth between the grand arrangements and the minimal ones was the only thing that dragged down Build a Rocket Boys! for me. Here, the results are more consistent, but that means that when you tire of the pace of one largely keyboard-driven song with a mid-tempo rhythm that doesn’t seem to change much throughout, there’s another one like it just around the corner. A few electronic elements are introduced here and there that are relatively new to Elbow’s sound, but this isn’t Elbow gone electronica by a long shot. As with nearly every element of the band’s sound, it’s a subtle shading rather than a dominant color. Those hues and shades don’t seem to shift much from song to song, giving the false impression that most of it “sounds the same” at first, but that’s an unfair perception that tends to go away upon repeated listens. Maybe the biggest thing holding be back from gushing about this album rather than just mildly recommending it is that the pacing feels a bit off – it starts with one of the band’s most lumbering songs (which hasn’t grown on me nearly as quickly as “The Birds” did) and takes its sweet time to get ramped up from there. Save for two tracks near the end, every song is over 5 minutes long, and half of these ten tracks run over 6. So while it’s more of an immersive experience than you might expect given the short track listing, it also means that the band’s taking a bit of a gamble. If you get bored with one particular track, that’s a larger chunk of the album overall that isn’t going to seem worthwhile to you. On past albums, the tracks that didn’t really do it for me tended to be some of the shorter ones that were in between the big, slow-burning anthems that I loved. Here, I feel like they’re reaching for the stars but then shying away self-consciously, which can be interesting when it means the band is subverting your expectations here and there, but annoying when it seems like their default mode throughout most of the album.
I can’t say that Guy Garvey’s songwriting is anything less than top-notch, though. His lyrics tend to intrigue me here even on songs where the choruses fall flat or the music doesn’t quite seem to do his laments justice. Pretty much everything he sings strikes that perfect balance between wearing his heart on his sleeve (whether he’s expressing infatuation, or anger, or heartbreak, or wide-eyed curiosity) and keeping that quintessentially British “stiff upper lip”. The men seems to enjoy alliteration, and the way that carefully chosen words can flow elegantly into one another, which makes his musings worthwhile even when I think the subject matter has been done to death. At Take Off‘s best moments, it feels like he’s discovering the world anew and letting new love into that beaten, trampled, alcohol-soaked heart of his. And that brings my enthusiasm for the album back up, even when a limp musical arrangement threatens to to turn a soaring eagle into an awkward albatross. Elbow may fly low here, but they never crash and burn.
1. This Blue World
So, I mentioned earlier that the opening track is “lumbering”. It’s over seven minutes long, which in and of itself is not a problem. But it gives a bad first impression of the album by merely coasting where it ought to soar. A melody that ought to rank among Elbow’s finest gets significantly bogged down by an arrangement that doggedly hits every single quarter note in a far worse way than I could have ever accused Coldplay of doing. Despite the delicate approach taken by Garvey’s voice and the electric guitar, which by themselves are a great centerpiece to build a song around, the drums and acoustic guitar pretty much ruin it by tap-tap-tapping along throughout, with virtually no change in emphasis or intensity, only slowing briefly as one verse transitions to the next and somehow making the song feel like it’s losing steam at the exact moment when you’d expect something big to happen. It doesn’t bother me that this song never hits a huge climax. I think it would be better off starting smaller, without the drums or any rhythm section at all, bringing the more “fluid” components of the song to the forefront instead of letting the mechanical bits be so persistent and distracting. Then when the rhythm comes in later, it would at least feel climactic. Now, to be fair to Elbow, I’ve said almost nothing about the meaning of this song, and it’s a lyric that begs to be dissected, with its picturesque description of a planet in mourning for a lost love: “When all the world is sucking on its sleeve/You’ll hear an urgent morse in the gentle rain/And if you plot your course on the window pane/You’ll see the coldest star in the arms of the oldest tree/And you’ll know to come to me.” During the section you’d expect to be the climax, Garvey delivers a chillingly accurate take on what it feels like to feel one’s way into a new relationship while still nursing wounds from an old flame you just can’t seem to let go of: “While three chambers of my heart/Beat true and strong with love for another/The fourth… the fourth is yours forever.”
Now that we’ve opened the album with a song that felt more like a middle or an ending, we can pretty much throw out the rulebook in terms of knowing what to expect as this album unfolds, at least tempo-wise. This song, which is also quite cautiously paced, seems more aggressive and upbeat in the wake of “This Blue World”, and while it hits the favorite Elbow topic of being a sad sack lounging around in some dive-y watering hole, it’s not interested in delivering the rhythmic punch of a “Grounds for Divorce” or the sing-along camaraderie of an “Open Arms”. This one’s about an old dude sitting at the bar, marveling at all the youngins intent on pretending he doesn’t exist, which leads to the band’s first use of profanity since The Seldom Seen Kid‘s “Some Riot” as he quips: “And glory be, these f*ckers are ignoring me/I’m from another century.” You get the idea that he’s geared up for a fight, but really he just seems to want some companionship, maybe a little credit where credit is due regarding his glory days: “I’ve broken jaws protecting laws that keep you free/I made your day, so have a take by me.” As the organ buzzes along and the drums just sort of amble through the song without ever really building up to much of anything, the guitar does this little slinky dance that reminds me of “An Audience with the Pope” minus the romantic overtones, and the group vocals and piano seem to want to deliver a rousing chorus melody… but they can’t quite get there. This one’s interesting for what it has to say, but I can’t see myself returning to it terribly often.
3. Fly Boy Blue/Lunette
Ah, now this is more like it. I know better than to expect fast tempos and huge rock riffs from these guys, but here we’ve got a song with a little swing in its step and fire in its belly. It’s all crisp and clear, with the drums skipping along cheerily and the acoustic guitar and bass finally wriggling free from the haze they’ve been previously buried in. Garvey begins to sing of the trials and tribulations of an airline pilot, one who has perhaps had a rough day and is now relaxing in some airport bar where he’s treated to such oddities as “Someone’s dancing on the box/A former MP, and no one’s watching.” Without warning, this extremely loud and gritty electric guitar riff and a boisterous horn section come crashing in, and for the first time on the album, Elbow comes alive, playing up the contrast between the clean and classy, and the dirty and shady, for all that it’s worth. This would be a fine song on its own, but Elbow gives us a little extra by letting the outro of “Fly Boy Blue” morph into the delicate acoustic outro “Lunette”, which may well have started life as its own song, but there’s a certain rhythmic continuity between the two that makes it so satisfying to hear the band segue between them without missing a beat. Here, Garvey’s musings are almost Seussian at times – “Would the drivel make scribble, make sense and then song?/Would the woodbines denied black another man’s lungs?” – and unabashedly romantic at others – “But there isn’t words yet for the comfort I get/From the gentle lunette at the top of the nape/Of the neck that I wake to.” Whatever he’s drinking that makes the delectable tongue twisters flow so effortlessly from his lips, I’d like a double shot, stat.
4. New York Morning
When I reviewed Vienna Teng‘s Aims last year, I noted that even from some of my favorite wordsmiths, songs about New York tended to come across as a bit of a cliche. So many people have written about the city, what’s left to say? Why not put a lesser-known but also well-loved city in the lyrical spotlight for a change? And here comes Elbow, with their own wide-eyed ode to the Big Apple even though they’re not even from America. The nerve! But here’s the catch… this song is really, really good. Like, “instant classic” good. This might be the one point on the album where Elbow distills everything the did best in the best into one big, happy, anthem that just marches straight through town and declares why the corners and alleyways and every little detail of the city works its healing magic upon them. Everything seems “grand” in this song even if it’s not big and loud – the stately piano chords marking time, the guitars floating between those chords like a bird always looking for a perch on the next sky-scraping rooftop, the orchestral bombast that accompanies it like a parade headed straight down Broadway. I can only imagine that Guy found himself in NYC as a way of getting some distance between himself and his breakup woes, and he rediscovered the simple joy of watching a bustling community come to life in the wee hours of the morning. Whether it’s in the forward-thinking tendencies of city folk who will gladly usher in outsiders deemed to be too strange by the rest of the world – (“It’s the modern Rome, where folk are nice to Yoko” – possibly the first positive lyrical reference to Yoko Ono I’ve heard since the Barenaked Ladies championed her cause over twenty years ago!) – or in the simple marvels of architecture and the hard workers who keep all the gears turning – (“Every bone of rivet steel/ Each corner stone and angle/Jenga jut and rusted water tower/Pillar, post and sign/Every painted line and battered ladder/Building in this town/Sings a life of proud endeavour/And the best that man can be”) – he’s pretty much found himself in an urban wonderland. And sure, it’s a rosy-eyed view of a place that has its fair share of problems. But just this one, singing along with the guys at the top of my lungs about a place that talks loud and proud and seems to hold all the answers in some sort of an open-source Utopia doesn’t strike this Los Angeles native as crass East Coast elitism. Maybe that’s because it’s being appraised by outsiders, or maybe it’s because Guy Garvey is just that good at wringing wonder out of a subject that would be tired and familiar coming from a lot of other songwriters.
5. Real Life (Angel)
I’ve given Richard Jupp a lot of guff earlier in the album for a few monotonous drum parts, but I’ve gotta say, his breezy rhythm here is what makes this track sing. It’s the third in a trilogy of songs that represent Elbow at their best on this album, and once again it succeeds in wringing new life out of obvious cliches. Writing songs that declare themselves to be about “real life” as if all those other songs were fake, and that refer to lovers as angels, ought to be considered crimes in the songwriting community by this point. Yet any jury would be forced to find Garvey innocent of any wrongdoing after hearing this beautifully flowing love song. Words seem to flow ceaselessly from his lips as he celebrates the mystical aura of a new lover whose quirks and deepest desires he’s still in the process of discovering, leading to turns of phrase like “Bring us in an indigo dawn with the lovelorn and renegade”, which seem designed to melt the iciest of hearts. Even though it’s a fairly fast-paced song (at least, in Elbow’s world where speed is perceived differently to begin with), it sounds neither like a grab at pop radio or a typical Elbow anthem, since it seems to start at its lighthearted climax and just float there in that state of euphoria for several minutes, before the drums give way to the simple chiming of guitars and electronic keyboards in the coda, which might be more of an extended bridge due to how the backing vocals dovetail nicely with an extra-long verse that Garvey can’t seem to pack enough flowery words into. The man clearly thinks he’s found heaven on earth, and his band is doing an excellent job of playing its soundtrack.
6. Honey Sun
The brief moment before this song begins, where someone is awkwardly stumbling around with the drum kit and Guy mutters, “Jesus!”, while being mildly blasphemous, takes me back to a few of those fun little in-between song moments on Leaders of the Free World. The song itself, oddly enough, mostly foregoes live drums in favor of an ever-ticking programmed rhythm, sort of an exercise in minimalism for the band as they gingerly paint around it with little bits of bass and miniscule guitar licks and low, humming background vocals. It’s a bit of a downer of a song, even though the music sparks curiosity moreso than sadness, so even as Guy’s lyrics find him so distraught as to be possibly hinting at drowning, shooting, or hanging himself (there are probably other ways to interpret “Can I jump in the gun?” and “String up a net across Lafayette/And tell of my deeds while I’m done”, but honestly, what comes to mind first?), it seems like finding new ways to cleverly turn a phrase has given him something to live for. “She and I won’t find another me and her” is probably the most telling quip of the bunch, as if to say that he might go ahead and let himself fall in love again, but it’s never gonna be quite like the unique experience it was with his now-absent soulmate. (He’d never be so crass as to actually say “soulmate”, I think. I just come up with stuff like that because I’m not an awesome songwriter.)
7. My Sad Captains
Well, we were getting on so well with those last few songs, and now along comes six minutes of… whatever this is. I’m pretty sure that this song must be what you would get if an outside observer listened to Elbow and tried to create a song from bits and pieces of their most naggingly middle-of-the-road tendencies. You know, things that they usually restrain themselves from doing too much of all at once, or at least temper with some ingenious and unexpected bits, like the near-constant mid-tempo rhythms and the prim and proper horn and string bits and the choruses that lean too heavily on a simple hook without developing it very much. That’s all here, and I can’t really think of any other Elbow songs that I would accuse of doing all of these things at once. The molasses-like tempo is accentuated by tambourines and handclaps, as if they had taken something fun and slowed it down to a dirge (kind of like Doves‘ “The Cedar Room” if you took everything else that was fun out of that song). There’s this great little horn fanfare that wants to be as elegant as the string bits were in the underrated Build a Rocket Boys! track “High Ideals”. And the guys chime in with “O! My! Soul!” after every single line of every single verse, almost straight-up admitting that the song was D.O.A. and so they had to come up with an easily singable hook to maintain the audience’s interest when they play it live. Oh yeah, and the lyrics about being drunk and sad. I’m reading between the lines a bit here, but one of those sad captains is probably Captain Morgan. I’ll give Guy a ton of credit (as usual) for coming up with such lyrical oddities as “BMX apothecaries” and “A bitter little Eucharist”, but by less than halfway through the song, I just want it to end already. The chorus describes his sorrow-drowning bender as “A perfect waste of time”, and I can’t help but feel like roughly half of this album could be described that way – immaculately recorded, relaxing to listen to, but ultimately spending a lot of time going nowhere.
8. Colour Fields
What have we here – a cute little three and a half minute song? Oh you poor dear, I think you’ve wandered on to the wrong album. Let me help you go find your mommy and daddy. Hey, I’m not going to blame Elbow for bringing something a bit more lighthearted and easygoing in as a breather here – but they may have created the most timid little indie pop song in history, with pretty much every instrument (acoustic or electric) being tapped or caressed as lightly as possible, as if you were supposed to read the entire thing like Braille. It’s sort of up-tempo, I guess, but quite tragically for a song with this title, most of the colo(u)r seems to have been sucked right out of it, as if the group had second and third and then fourth-guessed themselves on the subject of possible overproduction. In case you missed it in the ten or fifteen times that its weak hook gets repeated, it’s about two things: “Bright girl, dead town”. Man, they hang on that line as if they’ve come up with a Pulitzer prize-winning analogy, and while I’m usually all about praising Guy Garvey for his vivid lyrics, he just isn’t doing it for me here. The fact that this teeny tiny song still feels repetitive is a clear indicator that something has gone horribly wrong. I suppose I should be thankful that it’s only long enough to be mildly irksome, and it never strays into full-on maddening.
9. The Take Off and Landing of Everything
I may have guessed wrong on the whole “fear of overproduction” thing, because this song is packed to the brim with sound and seems to fear nothing. It’s not glossy or intentionally radio-friendly, but it is the most up-tempo track on the album by a long shot, and also the most dense. The rhythm of it isn’t heavy, like the rare rock-oriented song in Elbow’s catalogue, but it just comes blustering on in and it stomps its way throughout the entire track and the band never pauses to reflect or catch their breath. And while I think there are some cases in which Elbow does quiet reflection quite well, I like how they’ve subverted it here and everything is just a big funhouse of messy, reflective surfaces. That might be a slight detriment to the song in the sense that it makes it hard to understand the lyrics, which find Guy reminiscing on all of the little fascinating things his former lover would do that he knows he’s going to miss as life goes on, down to the little prayers she would apparently whisper as her plane would take flight and later touch down. It’s funny that such a quiet gesture becomes such a brash, noisy song as well as the overarching theme of the album, and I’m guessing this one will get a mixed response because it foregoes Elbow’s usual precision tuning when it comes to dynamic range, and chooses instead to blast you with soaring melodic sounds all the way through. At just over seven minutes, it almost ties with “This Blue World” for longest track on the album, with its extended outro feeling like it could well have ended the album. As unconventional as the pacing of this disc has been so far, though, it just wouldn’t be Elbow if we didn’t end on something spacious and reflective instead.
10. The Blanket of Night
The closing track is a difficult one for me to make up my mind about. It’s a slow, lurking beast, an ode to the motion of a dark sea that carries two lovers on towards an uncertain destiny. It’s equal parts symphonic and minimalistic, starting and stopping with clockwork precision, and at times brimming over with alien keyboard sounds. Sometimes I think the troubled drama of it is similar to “Some Riot”, definitely an Elbow song that had a bit of a steep learning curve for me as I was first absorbing The Seldom Seen Kid, but that I now consider a highlight. At other times I think its motion is a bit like a hippopotamus trying to do ballet, and I flash back to all the times I had to be patient through “The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver” on the very same album. I see the creativity in play here and the interplay between the different instruments even when the parts some of them have to play are meager ones. Since it’s one of the few tracks to wrap up in under five minutes, the last verse brings the entire album to an end a bit abruptly: “Paper cup of a boat/Heaving chest of the sea/Carry both of us/Swallow her, swallow me.”
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
This Blue World $.50
Fly Boy Blue/Lunette $2
New York Morning $2
Real Life (Angel) $1.75
Honey Sun $1
My Sad Captains $0
Colour Fields $0
The Take Off and Landing of Everything $1.50
The Blanket of Night $.75
Guy Garvey: Lead vocals, guitars
Mark Potter: Lead guitar, backing vocals
Craig Potter: Keyboards, piano, organ, backing vocals
Richard Jupp: Drums, percussion
Pete Turner: Bass, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: