bout four years ago I would have been unbelievably excited at the prospect of Elbow, a Manchester 5 piece being heavily hyped and compared frequently to Radiohead and Jeff Buckley. They would have been the combination of my dreams- all I had been looking for in a band. Admittedly teenage cynicism is at its height now, but the fact that I was filled more with apathy than anticipation when I heard about the group now is also linked to having been fooled too many times. Fortunately, Elbow have bucked the trend of letdowns emphatically by producing one of the best debut albums of the last five years.
The tone of the album is set by its opening line; “What’s got into me?” murmurs Guy Garvey over the hypnotic “Any Day Now”. It immediately promises escape “Any day now, how’s about getting out of this place?” is the droning chorus, but this place explained in the lyrics is not as depressing or dark as it initially seems.
Ten years in the making, this is a bruised and battered LP, but one that always offers hope. The band supposedly bonded over U2 and The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, however the influence of neither is particularly apparent. These days the label “Prog” seems to be used as an insult to Radiohead, but Elbow wear it on their sleeve with pride and, in doing so, have found a sound that is unlike almost anything else in the current market. Few bands could get away with using saxophones in the way that Elbow do in the finale to “Powder Blue” without sounding pompous or overblown. There is, however, a tightrope they walk for much of the album. Sometimes they fall, as professionals are prone to do. “Bitten by the Tail Fly” is probably the most unaccommodating track, its disjointed nature incorporating new wave and whispered poetry is an intriguing, but ultimately unsatisfying effort. What makes this album a success, though, is the balancing that Elbow does to stay firmly on that tightrope.
The songs do not lend themselves easily to the singles market. Plucking tracks to release probably was not easy. When heard outside the context of the album they sound like they miss the comfort of being sandwiched within the context of the rest of the album. It is surprising that the longest track on the album is probably the most immediate. Clocking in at over seven minutes the blissful “Newborn” may initially seem a contrary choice for a single (particularly with an opening line “I’ll be the corpse in your bathtub”) but in articulating the fear of growing old it will strike a chord with almost everyone who hears it. With another single “Red” they deal with watching a loved one succumb to substance abuse, it is clear that while Elbow may never have a number one single; they have the ability to make the most dire and depressing situations seem almost joyous.
The light at the end of the tunnel comes in the form of the final track “Scattered Black and Whites”. A song recounting childhood, “Been climbing trees/I’ve skinned my knees” remembers Garvey, he looks back to a time of innocence, before the complications of adulthood that litter the rest of the album, he knows it is a time he’ll never see again. His loss looks certain to be our gain, for the darker the future is for Elbow, the brighter it seems for us.
Reviewed by: Jon Monks
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01