We were listening to the new Elbow album this morning when the first line of Track Four stood out. “I’ve been working on a cocktail called grounds for divorce,” sings Guy Garvey over a ratchety chaingang rhythm, one of those industrial-propulsive beats with which Elbow pepper their Floydian/Talk Talk reveries. Then a crisply distorted guitar cuts through it; far too controlled to be grungy, exactly, but endemic of the way this largely excellent band manage to mix up the grandiose and ethereal with something that’s much more earthy and humane.
Elbow are a pretty anomalous band, in many ways. I seem to remember press from around their last album, which suggested Chris Martin was in some awe of them. Plenty of journalists deduced from this that Elbow were the older, proggier brothers of Coldplay, Snow Patrol, Keane and so on; all those ubiquitous bands with a thing for plangent piano ballads and calculating, hugalong stadium melancholy.
There’s some truth in this, compounded by the fact that snobs like me have always liked Elbow, and that perhaps consequently the band have never sold quite the bulkloads of product that’s been shifted by those other bands. They’re the kitchen-sink sophisticates at the party, the ones whose subtle complexities have seen their anthemics come with a few little twists which mean they’re not quite so assimilable.
Anyway, their fourth album, called “The Seldom Seen Kid”, has been hovering round the Uncut office since just before Christmas, and there’s a ballad on it called “Weather To Fly” which I’ve mentioned a couple of times in passing already, and which, with a prevailing wind, might just be the song which could propel them into the big space occupied by their labelmates at their new home, Fiction, Snow Patrol.
It’s not a dilution of the formula, by any stretch: in fact, “Weather To Fly” succeeds because it actually shows up the emotional and melodic paucity of so many of those records. Garvey’s never sounded better, over one of those measured, elegant builds at which the band excel – this one seems to end with a kind of muted brass band taking over the tune, which only adds to that nebulous but palpable sense of warmth which is another of Elbow’s key virtues.
“Weather To Fly” is the first track in a mid-album trio which really points up the strengths of the band. First, the gossamer bloke-ballad; then, “The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver”, which pulls off their trick of turning mundane detail into glimmering spacerock – lots of Floyd and Spiritualized orbiting here, and what may well be a Mellotron; and then “The Fix”, a vaguely new direction – a rogueish duet with Richard Hawley with a patter, swing and teeth-jangling catcall harmonies that distinctly recall “Ghost Town”.
Not quite all of “The Seldom Seen Kid” feels quite so fresh. It’s one of those albums which features some of the best songs a band has ever recorded, and some that feel so quintessentially of themselves that they’re close to self-parody. I’m thinking especially of the big-hearted singalong epic, “One Day Like This”, which manages to recall at least one song from each of the preceding Elbow albums, and also makes me think of Embrace, too, which isn’t entirely healthy.
So, to get over that, I’m going to put “Weather To Fly” on again, and note how, once again, it stops me in my tracks, sends shivers down my spine, and works in exactly the way this moist-eyed, big music is meant to, but so rarely does. Great song, pretty fine album.