Album: Little Fictions
In Brief: This album goes down smoother than The Take Off and Landing of Everything, though it may not have as much dynamic range, or as many climactic or startling moments. Some recent personal and professional changes in the band lineup lead to a sunnier and surprisingly more groove-based Elbow record, which I’d say is more accessible than their last few without radically altering their sound.
Wow, have I really been following Elbow for over a decade now? I feel like it was somewhere around 2006 when I first listened to their third album, Leaders of the Free World, and while I didn’t really get into it at the time, I came around much later to appreciate that record as one of their absolute best. It was really their fourth album, The Seldom Seen Kid, the cracked the door open for Elbow to slowly win me over, and I’m sure I’ve mention that pretty much every time they’ve come out with an album since then, but it’s because the “learning curve” on most of their albums is a bit steeper than it was with that one. Guy Garvey‘s velvety vocals are robust, yet easy on the ear, so that’s a pretty easy aspect of the but to fall in love with. But the band’s love of groove-based indie rock mixed with prog rock sensibilities, and a bit of orchestral flair on some of their slower numbers, makes a lot of their records feel like slow-burners. It can take a while to get into them, but once you do, you really get into them. That’s how it’s been for me, anyway, and while I still don’t think the band’s put out a record that I’d consider an undisputed masterpiece all the way through, they have such a consistent back catalogue and a formidable array of song highlights that I’ve grown to consider them one of my favorite bands over the years.
Over the break since their sixth album, The Take Off and Landing of Everything, Guy Garvey made a pretty good solo album called Courting the Squall, that saw him exploring both loud and quiet extremes beyond the band’s usual parameters. He opened up a bit on a new love that he had found after the breakup that informed much of Take Off, and since then he’s gotten married, and he now has a child along the way. These elements definitely inform some of the songwriting on the band’s seventh album, Little Fictions, which right from the get-go, seems like a much happier and instantly crowd-pleasing album than their last few. Somewhere during the hiatus, the band’s drummer, Richard Jupp, amicably split with the other four members. Rather than hiring a new drummer, the band handled the percussion in-house, coming up with interesting loops and grooves to base several of these new songs on. It’s a subtle but appropriate change for the band, since this album seems to be coming from a place of relative peace for them. I know the world’s greatest art is supposed to be angsty, but you know, sometimes there’s a lot to be said for creatively expressed optimism.
As a whole, the album just feels a lot smoother, and I’m sure that’ll be a detriment to those who enjoyed the ragged energy of songs like “Fly Boy Blue”, “Neat Little Rows”, or “Grounds for Divorce”. It’s their first album in a while that seems fully rooted in the lush pop end of their pop/rock sound, not really straying into edgy territory at all. I actually don’t mind this, though. The song highlights on Take Off and also Build a Rocket Boys! were fantastic, but to me those albums felt a bit schizophrenic. Little Fictions pulls off a nice balance, where its songs feel pretty cohesive from track to track, yet none of them seem interchangeable with the other. Their songs are still on the long-ish side, averaging out somewhere around four and a half to five minutes, but even though this album features their longest song to date, it never seems to overstay its welcome like some of the tracks on Take Off did. There’s still a track or two here that doesn’t really do it for me – that seems to be the one thing holding back every Elbow album from greatness – but as a whole, Little Fictions is another fine entry in a strong discography. Sometimes that’s all I need from a long-running favorite band, you know?
1. Magnificent (She Says)
I hate to use a cliché, but this song is LIFE. I knew from the first time I heard it that it was going to land itself high on my list of all-time Elbow favorites. The shuffling drums, the rousing strings, and the muted guitars all work together to create an irresistibly optimistic backbone for the song, but it’s Guy Garvey’s hopeless romantic outlook that really sells it. He’s not only found the love of his life here; he’s looking forward to saying hello to his unborn child, and looking back on those fateful moments when he and the child’s mother first met, setting these events into motion. He’s imagining the joy of watching his daughter “Throwing both her arms around the world” (which has got to be a U2 reference, right?), as he croons with unashamed sentimentality that it’s “A world that doesn’t even know how much it needs this little girl.” I could say that this song won me over instantly because its melodic turns are so captivating, and because it’s full of the little poetic and sonic details that put an optimistic pop song from Elbow stand in a class of its own, apart from standard pop music even when it relies on some of the very same tropes. But being on the cusp of parenthood myself admittedly makes this one extra special for me. Apparently Garvey and his wife are expecting their child literally any day now, while my wife and I are going the Foster care route and expecting a call saying a child who has already been born is coming to live with us any day now, so I can really relate to his curiosity and his excitement over slowly discovering who this little person will become.
2. Gentle Storm
It’s amazing how much a simple beat can do for a song. I love the loop they’ve built for this one, which seems to be little more than the thump of a kick drum and the clanging of some metallic objects being struck, but what’s almost as interesting as that loop is how sparse the song would be without it. Really, this is a spacious Elbow ballad in an up-tempo pop song’s body. Take the percussion away, and you’d have these spare keyboard notes that just sort of hang there with anticipation, and a lot of pregnant pauses in Garvey’s vocal melody – which is yet another winner, I might add. The “gentle storm” he’s describing seems to be his lover, and he’s sort of fascinated and terrified all at once by how swept up in the relationship he’s become, and how undeserving of it he sometimes feels. “Yours and my spit-shone restless hearts, they were meant to beat one time, share one fate”, he tells her in a lyric that, like most of his work, tries harder than most songwriters to add color and character to otherwise familiar imagery. This feeling of him being in total awe is what makes the simple chorus of “Fall in love with me everyday” seem far less self-centered than it probably does when reading it on paper. Normally you sing about falling in love with someone else instead of them falling in love with you. But he seems absolutely flabbergasted that this is still happening. And I couldn’t be happier for him.
3. Trust the Sun
This track’s a little slower than the last two, definitely more meditative, but still groove-based. Palm-muted guitar strings are a big part of the percussive backdrop as far as I can tell, they give the song a gentle “train chugging its way up a hill” sort of a feeling, while subtle, fluid guitar work and a bit of bass sketch out a vague chord structure to be followed, allowing a modest piano melody to briefly take the lead on the chorus. It’s interesting how guitars are a major part of both this song and “Magnificent”, yet they’re downplayed, as if Elbow couldn’t care less about being considered a “rock” band in the traditional sense these days. I’m fine with that. This song takes a little longer to appreciate, but I admire its meditative restraint and don’t mind that it doesn’t build to a climax in the way you’d normally expect of an Elbow song. Garvey appears to have been traveling when he wrote this one, separated from the familiarity of his world back home and reeling from the news telling him the world around him’s getting a little less sane by the day. “I just don’t trust the sun to rise/When I can’t see your eyes/You’re my reason for breathing”, he tells his lover in the chorus, as if her kindheartedness is his only constant, and without it the world crumbles away into cold, brutal darkness. I love the way he plays with words in this one – there are subtle bit of alliteration and internal rhyme that leave me impressed at how clearly the song communicates that sense of needing someone else’s selflessness as a moral anchor, despite the eccentric phrasing. Six minutes of this somehow doesn’t get old. It’s magical stuff.
4. All Disco
Well, despite a solid opening trifecta, they can’t all be winners. Elbow’s need to be clever and make “music about music” doesn’t come across nearly as clever on this song as I feel like they were hoping it did. The guitars are back front and center, and the stately pace of this song may sound more like a traditional Elbow anthem than he tracks preceding it, I can’t help but feel like it’s all a bit too middle-of-the-road for a song that’s basically thumbing its nose at genre categorization. The inspiration for the song was a quote from Black Francis of the Pixies that basically downplayed any type of music the band could play by implying that “It’s really all disco”. It’s a good idea for a song. You expect some genres to challenge the establishment and change the world, and you expect some to be kitschy entertainment, and for a band that you expect to be Important with a capital I to put things in perspective and say, at the end of the day, we’re just writing catchy songs and none of this is worth fighting culture wars over to determine who’s the best at it or anything… I really like that message. I’m just not too fond of the rather bland presentation of that message. It probably would have been too on the nose for Elbow to actually incorporate some disco influence or anything deliberately campy and outdated into this song, but you know, I feel like this song needs to do something more fun and out-of-character to really sell its message. Elbow’s not the band that comes to mind when I think of that sort of self-deprecating musical risk being taken… but then, that’s exactly why I wish they’d done it here, you know? Played within the expected confines of the band’s sound, there’s nothing bad about this song – I enjoy how strongly the group vocals come in at the biggest moments, and I never feel tempted to skip the song. But it really should have been a standout track, and instead it’s the opposite, and that frustrates me a little.
5. Head for Supplies
The front half of the record closes with a modest ballad that I remember most for its bright but mellow lead guitar melody, more good use of backing vocals to support Garvey’s lovelorn musings, and some dramatic pauses that make you think once or twice that the song’s going to end, before it actually does. The lyrics are a bit more of a puzzle to me than usual – I get the overall gist that they’re about two people trying to walk in sync with one another and wondering if maybe their lives are just too different, but I still haven’t made heads or tails of most of it. There’s a sense of both sadness and fondness to it, and I appreciate the overall mood, though I don’t connect to the song as strongly as most of the others on this record.
6. Firebrand & Angel
We’re back into the groove-based stuff with this song, which I want to say is the moodiest track on the record due to its slightly dark, percussive piano melody, but then if you stack it up against something like “Neat Little Rows” or “Grounds For Divorce”, obviously it’s not going to seem to have as much bite to it by comparison. “Charge” from The Take Off and Landing of Everything might not be a bad comparison, though I’d say I like this one a little bit more. Halfway through the song, it opens up into a bit of a sing-along, though a half-drunken, stumbling sort of sing along, which finds Garvey making some rather… interesting choices in the harmonizing department. It’s got a certain kind of offbeat fervor to it, but man, I can’t make heads or tails of the lyrics. He sings about “The corner of Firebrand & Angel” like it’s a street intersection, and maybe I just have bad Google fu, but I’ve turned up no such place in the greater Manchester area, or anywhere else for that matter. I can only assume that these are personality traits, not streets – he’s met someone who is at once a gentle soul and a militant activist, I suppose. I don’t have to understand an Elbow song to enjoy it, of course, and this one fits the bill well enough despite its inherent awkwardness. However, it does sort of bug me that there’s a recurring keyboard melody in between the refrains that strongly reminds me of the vocal melody from My Morning Jacket‘s “Like a River”. (“Wayyyy-awayyyyy-awayyyyy-oh.” Don’t tell me you MMJ fans out there aren’t hearing it.) That is one of my absolute favorite songs to come out within the last few years, and it’s distracting when a merely good song unintentionally reminds you of a much better one.
I can’t think of very many times when Elbow’s been this decidedly political in a song. “Leaders of the Free World” would be the obvious choice, and if they’ve done anything in that vein between than and now, clearly it sailed right over my head. You wouldn’t know just from a surface listen that this song is actually kind of angry. The mellow keyboard chords and the brisk percussion groove that propel it along are a bit misleading in that regard, though i do appreciate how they lend themselves to a quick and snappy lyrical cadence. Garvey has a lot to say here, most likely concerning “Brexit”, which was the UK’s equivalent of America electing Trump on the “international embarrassment” scale last year. A lot of it’s wrapped up in code and filtered through Garvey’s personalized musings, but at some points it’s pretty obvious that he fears for the future of his country and what the rest of the world must be thinking right now: “I’m from a land with an island status/Makes us think that everyone hates us, maybe darling they do/But they haven’t met you/They only know the villains at the tiller.” I’m not really sure what this has to do with the world’s tallest mountains – K2 is the second-highest in the world after Everest (and from what I understand, a much tougher ascent, so take that, lame Everest metaphors in other people’s songs!), and later the Andes get mentioned as well. My best guess is that traveling the world and marveling at its imposing sights and its cultural differences from how us Westerners see things might have been the only antidote to the stubborn, insulated nationalism that Garvey felt he was drowning in every time he turned on the TV last year. Anyway, this song is dense however you slice it. I’ll probably be dissecting bits and pieces of it for years to come.
While Little Fictions has fewer of those slow, sparse moments that don’t really do it for me than the last few Elbow records did, this song is the point where I end up feeling that way on this album. I don’t mind the simple recipe of just Garvey’s voice and piano. But there’s something annoyingly persistent about the piano chords, like they have to hit every quarter note, and there’s a little bit of echoey reverb on them, and it feels like it ruins the gentle grace of the song at times. At just over two and a half minutes, this is the album’s shortest track, and it feels like a bit of an unfinished thought, perhaps a collection of loose lyrical snippets that never developed into a full song, recalling the sights and sounds of places visited with a special someone who is no longer around. (“Montparnasse”, as it turns out, is a neighborhood in Paris, though Melbourne also gets a mention, so I’m not really sure where all the action is taking place.)
9. Little Fictions
If you’ve been missing the more climactic, prog rock side of Elbow, then this track is most definitely for you. At eight and a half minutes, it edges out “The Birds” as their longest track on a studio album, and much like “The Birds”, it uses repetition in its favor as it climbs gradually to a beautiful vista. It’s another loop-based song, and this time around it’s equal parts clunky and funky, bringing back that “banging on tin cans” sort of feeling from “Gentle Storm”, but keeping the vibe of it a little more tense due to how the piano chords and the stuttering strings seem to be in different keys from each other. Garvey’s lyrics are at their most oddball here, bordering on Lewis Carroll-esque at times, and yet the cadence of them seems warmly familiar, reminding me of “Starlings” as he builds up to the eventual release of tension in the refrain. The payoff in that refrain rings out loud and clear: “Love is the original miracle”. After five minutes or so, when the emotional energy of the song seems to have crested and has now backed off to the point where a simple drum beat is the only thing left, you’d expect it to fade out, and that would have been a fine enough way to close the track, but the band’s not done with it yet. They bring it back for an exhilarating coda, with the drums getting noticeably heavier, filling in the space that was once left empty, and there are these odd, high-pitched keyboard sounds streaking across the sky, as if the band had discovered the musical equivalent of the aurora borealis. It’s a bit startling, but it’s also incredibly cathartic. And unlike most of the tracks on the album that don’t seem directly connected to each other in any way, when it finally does wind down, it leads beautifully into the track that follows it.
Keeping the same overall tempo as “Little Fictions”, but with a way more laid-back atmosphere and a much simpler combination of strummed acoustic guitar chords and a homemade-sounding loop made of foot stomps and tambourines, this track winds the record down quite gracefully, with its imagery of the passing scenery as viewed by a weary but thankful traveler: “And the wheat fields explode into gold either side of the train.” You get the sense of a man’s heart softening as the seasons change before his eyes, since he starts the song by insinuating that his heart had been replaced by a “circular saw blade” and regretting tearing apart someone he loves so deeply, yet the time and distance between then and now seem to hold the promise that the wounds will soon be healed. As Elbow album closers go, the only one that’s ever truly captivated me was “Dear Friends” on Build a Rocket Boys!, but I love the feeling of tranquility and the vivid imagery this one provides me with, and I suspect I’ll find myself being in exactly the right mood for it when autumn rolls around. (I do find the studio chatter at the end where the guys are all excited at how “We got a loop out of that!” to be a little distracting, since it makes the record feel like it ends abruptly, but since the song overall has a more “unplugged” vibe to it, I suppose it fits the mood.)
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Magnificent (She Says) $2
Gentle Storm $1.75
Trust the Sun $1.50
All Disco $.50
Head for Supplies $.75
Firebrand & Angel $1
Little Fictions $1.75
Guy Garvey: Lead vocals, guitars
Craig Potter: Keyboards, piano, backing vocals
Mark Potter: Guitars, backing vocals
Pete Turner: Bass, backing vocals
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