Album: Giants of All Sizes
In Brief: After the relative lightness of Little Fictions, it made sense for Elbow to go in a darker, more brooding direction, especially considering the personal losses the band has endured over the past few years. Only problem is, it feels like there isn’t a whole lot of meat to this album since it only has nine songs, and barely half of them are striking me as memorable.
Throughout the years, the music of Elbow has struck me as a bit of a high-wire balancing act. I’m sure I must have made this analogy before – likely when writing about The Seldom Seen Kid, the album that first got me into the band in 2008, which had a few songs that seemed like they were perched at precarious heights, with all of the splendor and majesty their protagonists had worked so hard to achieve being ready to collapse down into a horrific pile of debris at any second. On the albums that followed, there continued to be a very delicate balance between weight and grace that made this high-wire act possible to pull off. Load the tightrope walker down with too much weight, and the wire will likely snap beneath him, sending him plummeting to certain doom. But don’t give him enough (or any at all), and he’s got nothing to center him, making him likely to be swept away by an errant gust of wind. 2011’s Build a Rocket Boys! seemed to flirt with both extremes at times, with its weightier and lighter material seeming to come from two separate worlds, while 2014’s The Takeoff and Landing of Everything pulled off the balance a little better, even if it meant the album as a whole got off the ground rather slowly and wasn’t one of their easier ones to get into. 2017’s Little Fictions is quite possibly the most lightweight thing they’ve ever done in terms of mood – not that it lacks gravity or consequence, but the band seemed to be coming from a happier and more settled place in most of those songs, and even if the grooves and harmonies were a bit on the more relaxed side, that album has actually emerged as my favorite thing Elbow has done in the 2010s. I didn’t expect at the time that they’d manage to squeeze another album out before the decade’s end – but here we are in the final quarter of 2019, with the release of Giants of All Sizes throwing a bit of a monkey wrench into what we all might have expected from Elbow, in both positive and negative ways.
Giants might be the band’s most emotionally heavy record yet, and at times the songs are longer, twistier, and more experimental, deliberately juxtaposing the smooth croon of Guy Garvey and the band’s knack for graceful, tasteful instrumentation with oddball melodic or rhythmic choices, a jarring sound here and there, whatever is necessary to wake the audience up and remind us that these guys have been through some stuff. 2017 and 2018 were hard years for the band in terms of personal losses, with Garvey’s father dying of cancer, and two dear friends who ran venues that had helped the band to get their start back in the early days dying suddenly in rapid succession. Their loss haunts the band throughout most of this album, as does the ongoing political turmoil related to the question of Brexit, whether it will be a good or bad thing for the band’s home country of England, the rest of the United Kingdom, and the continent of Europe as a whole. Understanding all of this backstory isn’t absolutely necessary to appreciate Giants of All Sizes, but it at least helps to get you into the right frame of mind to understand why they seem so dour merely two years after sounding so at peace on Little Fictions.
My initial impressions of Giants of All Sizes have been hard to shake, try as I might to get deeper into the album. The three singles the band released ahead of time were all highlights that made it clear this would be a dark record, but that I could tell pretty early on would go on to become personal favorites worthy of my all-time “Best of Elbow” list. Several of the deep cuts on this record (at least, as “deep” as you can get when a record only has nine songs to begin with) are… not so much. It has a bit of the same pacing problem as Build a Rocket Boys!, where you have these big, imposing, emotionally weighty songs right up next to songs that seem to serve as more of a breather, at least instrumentally, but that aren’t really jumping out at me for that reason. Garvey continues to be an immaculate songwriter, even when having to deal with such unsavory subject matter as political unrest, death, even the suicide of a stranger that left an impression on him in one particular song. I’m just not always convinced, when the band takes the lighter approach instrumentally, that the music fits the lyrics. Either that, or the album just doesn’t flow convincingly enough to assure me that these songs all belong together as part of a well-executed master plan.
Now, just to be clear because I can already detects the most obvious objections forming in the minds of some readers: I don’t have a problem with this album being dark. Nor do I think an album is automatically subpar or incomplete if it has only nine songs. To the first point, even though I’m at a place in my life where nobody close to me has recently died or is dying, and I’m relatively happy, I seem acutely aware as this decade comes to a close of how fragile certain relationships or communities I’ve enjoyed belonging to may be. I can feel the tension threatening to break some of them apart, and a part of me is fighting against that in order to maintain the status quo I’ve enjoyed for several years now, while another part of me is trying to learn how to be content and let go of what inevitably cannot last forever, because that’s just a part of life. Key songs on this album are actually helping me with that process, and I appreciate that. To the second point, while I’m generally likely to grumble when I get my first peek at an album’s track listing and it doesn’t break into the double digits, there are plenty of bands that can say more in one song that a less talented artist can say in an entire album’s worth, so it’s more about the substance of the songs that the number of them. You could even argue that this album’s opening track is really two songs mashed together into one – it’s certainly long and complex enough to qualify. But the inevitable outcome of having a lean track list is that there’s pressure on every song to be good, because if there are fewer of them and many of them stick around a bit longer, that’s a bigger dead zone in the middle of the album if one or more of them fail to catch the listener’s attention. In the early days, Elbow’s albums were a bit on the longish side; from Leaders of the Free World onward, they’ve settled for 10 or 11 songs apiece and that’s been about right for them, even allowing for the occasional epic like “The Birds”, “Fly Boy Blue / Lunette”, or “Little Fictions” that goes the extra mile in terms of its length and structure. I don’t feel the sense of completion when this album ends, like I’ve been on an emotional journey with the band and it’s time to close this chapter, like I did on most of their previous albums. Even though I’d say the final third of this album focuses on acceptance and loving the people you still have around who give your life hope and meaning, there’s something about the way it wraps up that feels annoyingly middle-of-the-road compared to where it started. I guess I’m not ready for those songs to back off on the sense of adventure, you know?
Despite my nitpicking, even a new Elbow EP so soon after their last album would have been a nice surprise, so I can’t say I’m not excited to have new music from them in some format. I’m not likely to remember Giants of All Sizes as one of Elbow’s all-time best when I look back on their discography years later, but I’m guessing it’ll probably be seen as a productive change of pace for the band, a point in their career arc where they recognized the need to mix things up and they went for it, hopefully with a positive ripple effect on whatever they ended up doing next.
1. Dexter & Sinister
You know a songwriter has some heavy stuff on his mind when he starts a record off with “And I don’t know Jesus any more”. It’s a statement that I might have taken exception to many years ago, but there’s a lot of context to consider here that puts me more on the sympathetic side. First off, Guy Garvey has never revealed himself to be a particularly religious man in his past lyrics – when God or Jesus or church has come up, they’ve generally been treated with a mix of curiosity and cynicism, as if religion was part of the backdrop of Garvey’s upbringing, but not something he’s been a devout follower of as an adult. Facing the loss of a parent and two close friends, and with a culture war going on between right and left in the background, he’s probably heard a lot of people’s points of view on what they think God/Jesus would have to say about these situations, and I’m willing to bet a lot of it has rung hollow for him. So I see at as more of a statement that Jesus’s followers don’t seem to line up with the Jesus he thought he knew. But anyway, that’s just one line of a complicated song that gets the album off to a tense start, with its thick drums and guitars hearkening back to weightier Elbow classics like “Grounds for Divorce” or “Neat Little Rows” – something we haven’t heard much from the band in recent years. I love how the expected graceful elements such as Craig Potter‘s delicate piano playing clash with the noisy percussion and his brother Mark Potter‘s guitar riffs, while occasional bits of synth stab their way into the mix like abrupt revelations from on high. There’s this sense of feeling troubled and restless, having the “heaviest heart jackhammering in me” as Garvey nervously puts it, because the source of hope he used to turn to is lost and now he feels unmoored in these “faith-free, hope-free, charity-free days”. Dark as this is, and as difficult as some of the imagery within it can be to unravel (you’ll have no idea what the title means unless you care to learn about heraldry and what the figures on the left and right side of a coat of arms stand for), I think the arrangement is more than brilliant enough to keep it engaging, particularly in the song’s second half, where it suddenly shifts into a 6/8 rhythm, guitar melodies ascending toward the heavens, with the beautiful voice of Jesca Hoop coming in to offer a change of perspective. The only lyrics she sings are “Ooh, darling boy”, again and again. Even with the first half of the song and its backstory taken into account, I still have no idea who the darling boy is, whether she’s playing the role of a lover or a mother figure trying to offer Garvey some comfort, or whether she’s representing the feeling of love and reassurance he gets from watching his own little boy slowly grow up, thus far blissfully unaware of the harsh realities of the world around him. It’s a beautiful (if somewhat disjointed) way to cap off an exquisitely crafted song. So far, I’m really liking how the tattered edges are looking on Elbow’s usually clean, reserved, and gracefully executed sound.
2. Seven Veils
Hearing Elbow revert to subtler, gentler instrumentation at only track two kind of brings this album to a screeching halt for me. This is one of those tracks that I keep trying to pay closer attention to, and it keeps slipping through my fingers. It has all the delicate hallmarks of a track I’d normally expect from Elbow mid-album – subdued but soothing melody, stately piano coming in at the right dramatic junctures, even a set of lyrics that seems romantic on the surface but actually reveals itself to be quite troubled. There’s even a bit of slide guitar here that seems like a new element for them, and that adds a welcome bit of texture I genuinely was expecting. Digging into the lyrics, I’ve grown to appreciate how it’s essentially an anti-love song wearing the skin of a down-tempo romantic ballad, as Guy softly croons about a lover who played him for a fool, and he could see several moves ahead and thus knew it was coming, yet he let her get away with it anyway. He’s telling her in no uncertain terms here that there’s no real romance in the way she treated him – “The way you kissed me when you lost another valentine” makes it pretty clear that this was a rebound relationship, and the line “There’s no roses in this garden, no sun melting in this sea” really seals the deal in the chorus. There’s some real anguish here now that he’s pieced together how he was simply being used for temporary pleasure all along. So why does everything about this song seem so intent on flying under the radar? Maybe it’ll play differently to the very same people who consider “Lippy Kids” a classic and don’t care that such a long, sparse song was track #2 on Build a Rocket Boys! I like that song much more outside the context of that album; maybe with time I’ll come to feel similarly about this one.
This was the second of three singles released before the album came out – I’ve been a bit hesitant to say that all three brought a bit of an electronic element into Elbow’s sound, because I didn’t want to give the impression that this was one of those “rock band gets bored with real drums and decides to go synthpop” records, or that a band now lacking a permanent drummer had somehow lost its beating heart. The live drums and especially Pete Turner‘s bass really pop here, but there’s a weird, glaring edge on the organ riff that leads off this song, which makes me wonder if it’s coming from a traditional organ or if it’s being fed through a synthesizer or approximated by a laptop or something like that. It’s interesting how intense and haunting that organ riff is, even though the syncopated beat of the song is more of a laid-back, mid-tempo one. The central point of the song certainly grabs our attention as Garvey tries to comfort someone by downplaying the horror of watching his own world fall apart: “Baby, empires crumble all the time/Pay it no mind; you just happened to witness mine.” The verse (of which there really is only one, and it gets repeated – a minor annoyance on a few tracks from this album) goes on to detail how utterly caught off guard he was by this emotional breakdown suddenly hitting him on what was supposed to be a bland, ordinary Tuesday, and yet he’s trying so hard to do the British “stiff upper lip” thing and encourage the woman he loves not to despair like he does, so that at least he can find some hope in her not having lost the light in her eyes yet. Of course, all of this is happening against the backdrop of the doom and gloom predictions that Brexit will be the beginning of a chain reaction that undoes the relative peace currently enjoyed by most of Europe. It’s grim stuff, cleverly disguised as experimental Britpop.
4. The Delayed 3:15
I wanted to say that Elbow doing a song about a train that either departs or arrives at a very specific time seems naggingly familiar… but then I realized I was confusing them with Doves and their song “10:03”. The sound of this one, with its acoustic guitar gently strumming along in 3/4 time and a string arrangement eventually coming in to lend it some light, reminds me of a few of the slower highlights on Leaders of the Free World, such as “The Stops”. The difference is, this one’s all verse and instrumental interlude. It never reaches a gooey, climactic chorus – which I suppose is fine, because the lyrics aren’t about something you’d want to swoon over. Garvey apparently had the instrumental arrangement worked out, and was trying to write lyrics during a train ride, when his train got stopped because a man committed suicide by throwing himself in front of it. Hence the delay, and the cops trying to retain their composure outside as they recover the grizzly remains while the people on board the train calmly shake their heads and say it’s a pity, while not really caring all that much and being more annoyed at being late for whatever they were on their way to do. it clearly affected Guy to know that this man would largely be remembered by others as an inconvenience, and that he died in one of the least beautiful places imaginable – all urban decay and rubbish on the sides of the tracks and, to use his words, “spray-painted swastikas and cocks”. Man, what an image. I’ve joked on a few occasions that Guy Garvey could make singing the phone book an ethereal experience, but I never thought about how jarring such an ugly image would be, sung softly in his achingly lovely compassionate voice. This song feels like it wants to develop into something more epic in scope, but due to the lack of a chorus or any real shift in dynamics, it just sort of ends up trailing off after the second verse and a brief interlude of strings and woodwinds (which Garvey himself arranged, and which sounds classy as hell, but which gets me geared up for a more emotional ending that never arrives). Perhaps it’s appropriate to the story having no real closure, as Guy notes that the man’s suicide doesn’t even make the evening news, so there’s not even a name to pay tribute to for this poor chap who decided to off himself in the least scenic spot he could find.
5. White Noise White Heat
Much like the organ riff in “Empires”, there’s a guitar riff at the beginning of this song that pierces the air rather sharply, sounding like it’s been heavily modified to more closely resemble the sound of an electronic keyboard. It’s weird how it lands in the uncanny valley between the two instruments. When the band’s rhythm section gets going, this turns out to be about the closest thing to “Grounds for Divorce” that we’ve gotten in the eleven years since that song made such an impact – it’s not trying to repeat the same success per se, but it’s definitely one of the most straightforward rockers in a long time from a band that I’ve come to expect more prettiness than heaviness from on most of their albums. Garvey sings of having his trust utterly betrayed here, though unlike “Dexter & Sinister” where he no longer recognizes Jesus, here it’s his faith in humanity that has taken a hit: “I was born with a trust/That didn’t survive the white noise of the lies/The white heat of injustice has taken my eyes/I just wanna get high.” The backstory here is the Grenfell Tower Fire, a tragedy that claimed the lives of over 70 people in a low-income housing development in London in the summer of 2017. Apparently it’s become a flashpoint for discussions about income inequality, and how the rich folks in charge allegedly turned a blind eye to safety regulations not being followed and shoddy living conditions overall, with the implication being that the lives of people who were poor and/or belonged to minority groups simply weren’t worth the effort. Due to that, I’m going to speculate that the choice of the word “White” in the title isn’t a coincidence, and that Garvey is leveling accusations of the neglect being racially motivated. It’s certainly the angriest song I’ve heard from him in a long time, though he also makes sure to stop and question himself for a second, wondering whether he’s just singing about it from a safe distance, perched up in an ivory tower somewhere far away: “But who am I, some Blarney Mantovani/With a lullaby when the sky is falling in?” Lots of food for thought here, packed into a tight four minutes that comes to a rather abrupt end, as if Elbow wanted to loudly remind us all that gentleness and grace were not the only tricks the band had its sleeve.
What in the hell even happened with this one? The back half of the album opens up with a true whimper – a dull, muted song with an uneasy, wandering melody that seems designed to subvert every possible way that Elbow’s music and Guy Garvey’s singing could be regarded as lush or pretty. I can’t blame them for wanting to challenge that stereotype of themselves, but the end result here is that Guy sounds hoarse and off-key, nothing really stands out instrumentally, the female vocals that play off of him in the chorus seem a bit random and out of place, and most crucially, the song’s central conceit that “All of this stuff in our veins is the same” lands with a lackadaisical thud. Guy is trying to illustrate the frustration he felt at homeless folks parting like the Red Sea for rich people walking down the street who didn’t even so much as acknowledge their existence – as such, it’s a good lyrical companion to “White Noise White Heat” even if it does nothing musically to carry forward the momentum built up by that song. At only three minutes, this one feels like it drags out forever, and while Garvey’s descriptive prose is quite vivid and clever, it might as well be spoken words set to no music at all, for all the lack of impact it has when he performs it this way.
7. My Trouble
As I alluded to earlier, this record starts to turn a corner in its final third, as Guy Garvey devotes the remaining songs to the people who give his life meaning and help to keep him safe. Given that, it’s unfortunate that (a) this change seems a bit abrupt coming out of the despair and bitterness of the last several songs, and (b) there’s so little about this particular song that strikes me as memorable, despite how obvious it is that he’s reverted to his usual sweet, self-deprecating ways, singing about how he’s such a hapless schlub who doesn’t think very much of himself, but he’s got a woman in his life who won’t let him throw that pity party, because her mere presence helps to snap him back to the reality that things can’t be all that bad. You’ve heard these sentiments on past Elbow records. Sometimes they’re exquisitely detailed and genuinely moving, like “Real Life (Angel)” and “Magnificent (She Says)”. Sometimes… they just sort of float along for five minutes without making a real impression, like this song does. I get the general idea that when he sings “I miss you, my trouble”, he’s complimenting her for her ability to rock the boat and make some much needed waves in his life when he’s content to just settle for being dead in the water. But there’s no trouble, or really any noteworthy movement, in this bland performance. I’ll give him an A for sheer sentiment, I guess, but the rest of the band just isn’t pulling their weight on this one.
8. On Deronda Road
As a sonic experiment, I have a pretty strong affinity for this song. The bass-heavy drum loop crackles with energy, somehow managing to evoke the sort of cold, machine-like atmosphere that Thom Yorke might come up with for one of Radiohead‘s more idiosyncratic songs (or damn near every song on his solo albums), while managing to avoid sounding utterly lifeless thanks to the sheer power of everyone in the band providing backing vocals, while an unusually woodsy-sounding acoustic guitar, holding very loosely to the song’s rhythm rings out as a deliberate contrast to all the other elements adhering strictly to the 4/4 grid. This time around it’s the lyrics that let me down a bit – though not without first showing some incredible promise in their hopeful refrain: “This day is made of hope and space/And home like I have never known/I found it in your perfect face/When we were on Deronda Road.” In terms of atmosphere, it’s a huge breath of fresh air, but the fact that this setting is never further explored is a travesty. This refrain simply repeats, with the only other lyric coming from a male backing vocal that repeatedly sings “Home like I have never known”, overlapping itself as though it could be a sample from some other song I’m unfamiliar with, played over and over for a Bon Iver-like effect. Apparently this song was inspired by a moment when Guy Garvey was driving with his son down the titular London street (which as far as I can tell from a quick Google search, isn’t renowned for any specific reason by folks outside of London) and he had some sort of an epiphany about them experiencing a genuine moment of happiness together. It’s all left to the imagination since we have only those four lines of lyrics to work with. Pity that the lyrics fell short here, when I love literally everything else about the song. This could have been an instant classic; instead it’s one of those late-album oddities that most people will probably forget about once this album’s touring cycle is over.
The closing track feels a lot more like traditional Elbow. it moves slowly, methodically forward on a stately drum cadence, piano chords ringing out as if Coldplay‘s old sound had never become uncool and Elbow had never been overshadowed by Coldplay’s more commercial use of it, with room in the middle for a brief but cathartic guitar solo. It’s not quite as exquisite as past album closers like “Dear Friends” or “Kindling”, but if we’re gonna have to wrap things up at only track nine, I guess this is a nice enough way to go out. The lyrics are pretty minimal here too, with really only a few words per line, but I feel like they say a lot in between the lines if you understand who exactly Garvey is singing about: “Hey/You look like me/So we/We look like him/When the time came/Just like you are/He was weightless/In my arms.” The trick he’s pulling here is that these words describe both his father’s passing and his son’s birth – events which were close enough together to serve as a reminder that his own life was more than about just him, and like his father, he was part of a legacy that would carry on even after his own death. There’s a real sense of peace to this song that I appreciate – it may not make any overt attempt to be a big, climactic conclusion to the album or give an obvious moral to the story, but it’s notable that the song has a steady heartbeat, and all of the unrest and anger and ugliness that we got a window into during the first 2/3 of the album are completely gone at this point. Little Fictions could have ended with a song like this and it would have suited the musical mood of that album perfectly, but a part of me is glad that it didn’t get written until the events that led up to Giants prompted it, because this album really needed it.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Dexter & Sinister $1.75
Seven Veils $.75
The Delayed 3:15 $1
White Noise White Heat $1.50
My Trouble $.50
On Deronda Road $1.25
Guy Garvey: Lead vocals
Craig Potter: Keyboards, piano, backing vocals
Mark Potter: Guitars, backing vocals
Pete Turner: Bass, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: